TERRY GROSS, host:
Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review of "Beware" the new album by Bonnie Prince Billy. That's the alter ego of Will Oldham, a prolific singer-songwriter who has released scores of albums, singles and collaborations with other musicians. Ken says this Bonnie Prince Billy project is filled with exciting, if often deceptively laid back country rock music.
(Soundbite of song, "You Can't Hurt Me Now")
Mr. BONNIE PRINCE BILLY (Singer, Songwriter): (Singing) Oh, I know, everyone knows, oh, I have seen that's a thing about (unintelligible) you can love, if
KEN TUCKER: That lovely melody with its plaintive Bonnie Prince Billy vocal, keening pedal-steel guitar and loping tempo, is typical of the song-craft Will Oldham offers on this superb new album "Beware." The first time you hear that song called "You Can't Hurt Me Now," it's easy to get carried along by its sweeping beauty and miss the fact that its lyric is all about isolation and loneliness. The more I feel myself, the more alone I am, sings Bonnie Prince Will Oldham, and you feel for his desolation. It only gets prettier, and more despairing.
(Soundbite of song, "Beware Your Only Friend")
Mr. BILLY: (Singing) I want to be your only friend, my (unintelligible) don't wish it so, watch out for these silent (unintelligible), that's where you see a soul-sucking (unintelligible), oh, where (unintelligible) take the (unintelligible).
TUCKER: That song, "Beware Your Only Friend," is a fine jangle of country-rock complete with violin veering into fiddle. It's about friendship turned into, as the narrator puts it, "soul-sucking." While Oldham's collaborators chime in with companionable harmony vocals, his words are at odds with such harmony, speaking of the ways in which people who like each other inevitably disappoint and fail each other.
(Soundbite of song)
Mr. BILLY: (Singing) I wanted (unintelligible) love to I have and what I do, then I met you, you couldn't care less if I were lord of Japan half the man of what I am, you say you like my eyes (unintelligible) just the way I (unintelligible) sometimes of me or how my stomach jiggles, but you don't love me, that's all right, (unintelligible) all through the night.
TUCKER: In the past, Will Oldham has released music with distorted chords and jagged variations on old gospel and blues music. But in a recent interview in The New Yorker, Will Oldham described his Bonnie Prince Billy persona as, "A Brill Building or Nashville songwriter who sings songs with verses, choruses, and bridges".
In other words, Oldham sees Prince Billy as expressing his most commercial side — but commercial on his own stubborn terms, which have a distinctly lonesome cowboy pokiness. It's a pokiness I really enjoy, to be sure, but it's also not the kind of Nashville songwriting that shows up in the current music of hitmakers like Sugarland or Taylor Swift. It's more like Willie Nelson meets Gram Parsons' version of the Byrds — Bonnie Prince Billy is a sweetheart of the rodeo.
(Soundbite of song)
Mr. BILLY: (Singing) I don't belong to anyone, there's no one who'll take care of me, it's kind of easy someone, when you don't belong to anyone, time has come play childish games, to (unintelligible) if I follow the (unintelligible) for a moment I thought I had someone…
TUCKER: Will Oldham has another alter ego besides Bonnie Prince Billy — he's done quite a bit of acting, in movies such as "Junebug," "Old Joy" and the recent Michelle Williams' movie "Wendy and Lucy." In almost everything he does, Oldham radiates a kind of resignation that can either be genial or despairing.
He seems consumed by his own thoughts, whether on screen or in a piece of music. But there's one crucial key to the success of Oldham's art, he never comes off self-absorbed. When he titled this album "Beware," it may have been a signal that we should come prepared not merely to hear his thoughts, but to hear ourselves, and some of our common fears and insecurities, in this lovely, passionate music.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed "Beware" the new CD by Bonnie Prince Billy. You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site freshair.npr.org.