Performance, reinvention, and alternate realities.
It might seem mysterious that Singer's Grave a Sea of Tongues, the latest album from the ever-prolific and confounding Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, shares nine of its eleven songs with his 2011 release, Wolfroy Goes To Town. Bonny's eleventh album, released last month by longtime label Drag City, is neither a remake nor a rehash, but more of a recreation, an attempt to build an alternative reality around the framework of this collection of songs, from the ground up.
Reinterpretation is certainly not a new approach for Will Oldham, the singer-songwriter, performer, and occasional actor. Oldham, who went by variations on Palace and Palace Brothers in the ’90s, has been known as Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy—a sort of manifestation of Oldham’s more performative impulses—since the release of the now-classic I See a Darkness in 1999. In the intervening years, Oldham has made a practice of building complete worlds around each release, and frequently revisits and updates older material. On the 2004 album Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy Sings Greatest Palace Music, Oldham revisited, with slicked-up Nashville studio musicians, the “greatest hits” of his lo-fi Palace years. Oldham’s work often foregrounds the layers of character and performance that other artists present as “authenticity,” while never sacrificing a core of emotional truth. In this sense, he follows in the footsteps of American songwriters from W.C. Handy to James Brown to Carol King to Bob Dylan to R. Kelly, investing his work with equal elements of poetry and theater.
Singer’s Grave a Sea of Tongues, produced by Nashville-based Mark Nevers (who has worked with everyone from Billy Ray Cyrus to the Silver Jews) presents an alternate reality view of the Wolfroy material, classic country arrangements and all. The album allows equal space for prominent pedal steel and gospel back-up vocals by the McCrary sisters, but the songs themselves stand out, more than structurally sound enough to handle a rebuild. The album also continues Oldhams’s fruitful collaboration with guitarist Emmet Kelly, who has appeared on almost all of his records since 2006’s The Letting Go. One of the few exceptions was the self-released album Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, a collection of new songs, performed solo with Oldham on voice and guitar. The album is available from Oldham’s Palace Records and was, notably, not released digitally.
The 2012 book-length interview by Alan Licht Will Oldham on Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy—modeled on Cassavettes on Cassavettes—explores the development of Oldham’s various personas over the course of his career. It was also meant to ensure that Oldham would never have to do another interview. However, he happily agreed to talk on the phone about this new record, what makes a recording “definitive,” and Dick Cheney, and was a joy to talk to.
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