Will Oldham writes gorgeous songs. His tempered, fragile music sounds like a man trying to pull his broken life back together. But the music markets don't want to leave it at that. They want the source. They want him confessing to the tape recorder or tearing for the lens. And so Will Oldham has done just about everything he can to prevent his music from being packaged for the paparazzi.
He's released albums under a variety of guises (Bonnie "Prince" Billy, Palace Brothers, Palace Music, Palace Songs and, um, Will Oldham) to prevent "branding." He'll give the interview as Bonnie "Prince" Billy, turn the exchange into a conversation about the critic, dress in some weird felt costuming and reenact a Joseph Beuys performance for the photo shoot. He asked British magazine Mojo for an eunuch and a throne before he'd do an article; thanks to the BBC props department, the story went through. He seemed so uncomfortable during one interview that the reporter begged off, worried he was actually hurting his subject; he wrote a point-counterpoint self-interview—a gnarled, reclusive Oldham vs. an egoistic young Bonnie—for another. So now he's got a reputation as the mad-genius American songwriter from Louisville.
But he deserves at least part of that reputation. Bonnie "Prince" Billy's best is I See a Darkness—as the title suggests, a fairly bleak album. The skull on the cover even echoes the distinctive shape of Will Oldham's lean, long face, though later Bonnie "Prince" Billy records became more upbeat. But his best might be the Palace Brothers album There Is No-One What Will Take Care of You: here, Oldham's voice is as raw as bone, singing songs like a man trying to convince himself that everything's going to be all right. He's barely even there above the music, swamped in a pain too present to bury as he sings for characters all too aware of their proximity to temptation and devastation.
He keeps his sound consistent and simple but designs each record as a specific experiment, even choosing different players to fill out the details: sometimes David Grubbs will help out, or David Pajo (ex-Slint, now a solo artist), or Dirty Three's Mick Turner. Steve Albini produced one of his records; Johnny Cash covered one of his songs. Oldham once even had the fans pick their catalog favorites—like the Minutemen did once; Oldham was actually more a city kid into punk than a hillbilly into oral tradition—and then hired Nashville session musicians to rerecord them as slick country hits, instead of humble lo-fi heartbreakers—like Dylan did once. He told one writer that once the music-listening audience develops a strong notion of what to expect from the artist—once the musician becomes a hit machine—then there's no reason to produce. Like post-Mellow Gold Beck, he said. After "Loser" turned into a pop phenomenon, Beck had to totally change the way he made music—and the expectation of the audience was an immense obstacle.
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But you know, even this Will-Oldham-as-Pynchon-esque-eccentric-refusing-the-mantle-of-celebrity is just a media myth, too. Sometimes Oldham's interviews are totally conventional: discussion of inspiration, personal back story, force-extracting meaning, etc. And for a recluse, he's pretty enthusiastic about playing live music—and about the communal aspect of people congregating to hear a performance. So what's the point in asking why? Will Oldham puts his secrets in his songs. That's everything we need to know. WILL OLDHAM AS BONNIE "PRINCE" BILLY WITH JAMES MERCER OF THE SHINS, MATT SWEENEY, NEIL HALSTEAD OF THE MOJAVE 3, MATT COSTA, MT. EGYPT, TRISTAN PRETTYMAN, AND MAC & MASARU AT THE MOONSHINE FESTIVAL, 650 LAGUNA CANYON RD., LAGUNA BEACH; WWW.THEMOONSHINEFESTIVAL.COM. SUN., 4 P.M. $35. ALL AGES.