On the back half of I Made A Place, the first proper album of new Bonnie “Prince” Billy songs in nearly a decade, there’s a quiet, creaky hymn called “This Is Far From Over.” It’s about the apocalypse. It’s maybe the most comforting song about the apocalypse I’ve ever heard. On the song’s first verse, Will Oldham lays out the horrors that mankind is currently inflicting on itself: “Shorelines gone and maps destroyed / Livelihoods dissolved and void.” It’s bleak. But then it gets better. Sort of.
On the same song, Oldham paints beautiful images of a Waterworld future. He asks you to imagine your daughter living on the sea, singing pirate songs, repeating to herself, “I now embrace eternity.” He reassures you that you can’t possibly know “what new thoughts will cross her mind as the wind blows in her hair.” And he leaves you with this: “Don’t worry if all life is gone / The rocks and sea will still roll on / And new wild creatures will be born / Yes, this is far from over / The whole world’s far from over.” It’s a genuinely moving consolation that might also be an extremely dark joke. This is the Will Oldham way.
Will Oldham is only 49, and yet he’s been a shadowy, folkloric figure for entire generations. He has lived a strange and unpredictable public life. He sang backup for Johnny Cash when Cash covered one of his songs. He took the photo on the cover of Slint’s Spiderland. He played a teenage Baptist preacher in John Sayles’ Matewan and a cop in R. Kelly’s Trapped In The Closet. (I wonder how he feels about the latter now. I doubt he’ll say.) Oldham’s music generally plays around with ancient, revered forms of folk and country — music that most devotees treat with scholarly solemnity — and yet some of his best songs are about getting a blowjob in public, or about wishing a shark would eat you.
Everyone who has met Will Oldham seems to have some kind of Will Oldham story, and most of those stories seem to revolve around Oldham doing things that those people did not expect. I’ve never met Oldham, but I’ve got a story, too. Once, years ago, when Oldham was living in Baltimore, I went to his house and watched an old live AC/DC video bootleg with his roommate. I think the video was Oldham’s. Oh, wow, I remember thinking. Will Oldham is into AC/DC. Huh. Most of those Will Oldham stories end in a reaction something like that: Oh, wow. Huh.
Oldham has released a lot of music this decade, but most of his records have been oblique little experiments. He’s made full-album tributes to other artists: The Mekons, Susanna Wallumrod, Merle Haggard. He’s recorded newer versions of his own old songs. He’s made collaborative records. But he hasn’t released an album of new Bonnie “Prince” Billy songs since his self-released, not-on-streaming 2013 self-titled album. In a press release, Oldham says that when he started writing I Made A Place, he didn’t think he’d ever share the songs with the public. And while Oldham isn’t really writing confessional, straightforward lyrics on I Made A Place — he basically never does that — there’s a stark vulnerability to the album.
The songs on I Made A Place are quiet and ruminative, and they’re pretty deeply rooted in old-timey folk music. Oldham recorded it with a small core group of collaborators in his Louisville hometown. There’s Joan Shelley, the great folk singer and songwriter, whose harmonies with Oldham are instinctive and weirdly nourishing. (If you heard Shelley’s album Like The River Loves The Sea a few months ago, you already know how good her voice sounds next to Oldham’s. Really, Oldham has always been great and finding the right collaborator at the right time; consider that a pre-Half Way Home Angel Olsen was all over 2011’s Wolfroy Comes To Town.) Shelley’s regular collaborator Nathan Salsburg — a fingerpicking guitar virtuoso who also works for Alan Lomax’s folk-music archives — is also part of Oldham’s band this time. Oldham taps into what Shelley and Salsburg do, turning it delicately and lightly in his own directions.
Even the musical left-turns on I Made A Place — a whole lot of flutes and woodwinds, mostly — seem connected to past generations of American music. At least one song, the luminous “Dream Awhile,” is a literal lullaby, both musically and lyrically: “When weighed down with wondering / The who, the why, the how / Dreamland’s where it all began and where we’re heading now.” Oldham is not trying to subvert anything here. He’s making security-blanket music, and it’s lovely. (There is, however, a bit of perversity in what’s on the album and what’s not. By way of announcing the LP, Oldham shared two new songs, both of them lovely: “At The Back Of The Pit” and “In Good Faith.” Neither is on the album.)
Oldham has always been great at writing strange little turns of phrase that stick with you, and he has plenty of those on I Made A Place. Consider this maxim: “A bad slideshow won’t show good mutilations.” Or this bit of life advice: “Time to reclaim what is there / Time to recapture the world / Potty-train a kodiak bear / If you’re a boy, then dance like a girl.” On “Squid Eye,” Oldham namechecks Aquaman and Ariel back-to back. But it’s not just a silly little lyrical moment; “Squid Eye,” like “This Is Far From Over,” is a song deeply consumed with rising sea levels. There’s a whole lot of apocalypse on “I Made A Place.”
The single most arresting moment on the album might be “Look Backward On Your Future, Look Forward To Your Past,” a story-song about a “stout-hearted man” named Richard. One night, Richard comes across a dying woman. She’s lying in the road, and she is screaming about the oblivion that’s coming for her: “Everything upon which you base your faith is made of vapor, and it won’t last / It’s only everything in our shared reality that keeps our souls held fast.” Richard dedicates himself to this idea, spreading a message that time doesn’t exist, drinking himself into his own oblivion. The story ends with nothingness — which, I guess ultimately, is where it began. And Oldham ends it with this thought: “This particular assemblage of molecules and memories someday soon may just run out of gas / So look backward on your future and look forward to your past.” As thesis statements go, that’s not bad.
I Made A Place is out physically 11/15 and digitally 1/31 on Drag City.
Other albums of note out this week:
• DJ Shadow’s collab-heavy double LP Our Pathetic Age.
• Tei Shi’s velvety, meditative La Linda.
• Fran’s personal DIY debut A Private Picture.
• PBDY’s exploratory electronic album Careworn.
• Lil Peep’s posthumous, documentary-accompanying full-length Everybody’s Everything.
• Juliana Hatfield’s full-album salute Juliana Hatfield Sings The Police.
• Celine Dion’s grand diva return Courage.
• The Milk On Milk compilation.
• The Queen & Slim soundtrack.
• The Peaky Blinders soundtrack.
• TNGHT’s II EP.