CD review: Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, ‘Beware’
CD review: Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, ‘Beware’

Bonnie “Prince” Billy


Bonnie “Prince” Billy may be the most influential artist working today whom you’ve never heard of.

Will Oldham, the quiet, bearded man hiding behind the public persona, has put out countless albums and EPs since the early’90s, collaborated with hundreds of artists, and his fans have included Johnny Cash, PJ Harvey, Bjork and R. Kelly, who cast him in an installment of “Trapped in the Closet.”

Yet most people have no idea who he is. Others simply don’t get the dark alchemy that inspires his fans.

Oldham’s latest, Beware, is as mainstream as the Louisville, Ky., artist is likely to get, perhaps his boldest attempt to draw in a wider audience. It’s ostensibly a light country rock album chock full of pedal steel, fiddle, high harmonies and moments of great beauty.

Oldham seems to acknowledge his rare step into the spotlight on the back of the album’s liner notes, which feature a dollar bill with the words “seek the wolf in thyself” scrawled across the top.

As with all of Oldham’s music, there is darkness at the core of Beware, fear and doubt hiding behind that beauty. That contradiction lends tension to his work and that tension differentiates Oldham from the many Americana-leaning artists he’s inspired over the years.

Most of the songs on Beware don’t really resemble Oldham’s inspirational early work, however.

From the album’s opening tune, “Beware Your Only Friend,” Oldham layers on the touches that make Beware among his most dense musically. His voice is confident and comfortable as he sings, “I want to be your only friend,” then is answered by a female harmony, “Is that scary?”

Judging from Jennifer Hutt’s beautiful fiddle and the soaring vocals, it might be a love song. But listen closely and it’s actually a song of unrequited love: “Picture us sitting and listening and loving what we hear/That has never happened/We both flail too much/we flail too much/to let the other near.”

The album is full of these delicious contradictions, making each listen a new experience.

— Chris Talbott, Associated Press