Will Oldham is an enigmatic actor and folk rock musician. He performs under various names - Palace, Palace Brothers and Bonnie Prince Billy. In addition to a new film, Bonnie Prince Billy has a new CD titled The Letting Go. Our critic Will Hermes sees similarities between the actor and the musician.

(Soundbite of “The Letting Go”)

WILL HERMES: In Kelly Reichardt's wonderful new film, Old Joy, Will Oldham plays an aging stoner named Kurt who's searching for a particular hot spring, among other things.

As a working musician, Oldham is known to plan tours around hot spring locations, and his new CD was recorded in Iceland, maybe the most famous hot spring region on the planet. In fact, he sounds here like someone who's been soaking for a while in very warm water.

(Soundbite of music, “Strange Form of Life”)

Mr. WILL OLDHAM (Musician): (Singing) A strange form of life kicking through windows, rolling on yards, hitting in (unintelligible), triggering eyes. A strange world. And a hard way to come into a cabin, into the weather, into a path, walking together.

HERMES: Will Oldham's first notable acting role was as a teenage preacher in John Sayles's 1987 film Matewan. But he mostly abandoned acting in favor of indie rock, where over the past decade he's made strange, handsome, sometimes disturbing and generally riveting music.

He's also been a major influence in the experimental folk music revival that's been dubbed freak folk, probably for the way his music can sound simultaneously ancient and modern.

(Soundbite of “The Letting Go”)

Mr. OLDHAM: (Singing) When the fever hits your forehead and two sad mice chew up your bed, when you call on God and God is dead, love comes to you, love comes to you.

HERMES: The Letting Go is one of Oldham's prettiest and most subtle records, and the title is telling. It took me a few listens to get into it, because you do need to let go, as if - at the risk of over extending a metaphor - you were settling into a hot spring, letting its waters unwind your muscles and slow down your world.

Note to drivers - this is not music for listening to in your car - unless perhaps you're stuck in a hopeless traffic jam.

(Soundbite of “The Letting Go”)

Mr. OLDHAM: (Singing) There was someone a long time ago.

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Come follow me and I will go.

Mr. OLDHAM: (Singing) And played with me whenever it snowed.

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) To the fortress in the snow.

Mr. OLDHAM: (Singing) She lives nearby and I'd walk her home.

HERMES: Will Oldham is known for intentionally under rehearsing his groups, and The Letting Go has a raw, unfinished quality. Voices seesaw off pitch, or a discordant string section will pull unsteadily against the main rhythm.

But like his best records, there's a wonderful freshness to the performances here, a sense of players discovering the music just as a listener might, with things magically coming together or threatening to fall apart.

It makes you pay attention, not by shouting, but by beckoning, languidly, as Oldham's character does in the film Old Joy. Inviting a friend to join him on a trip into the woods, just to see what's out there - and to see what's inside, too.

NORRIS: The Letting Go is the new CD by Bonnie Prince Billy AKA Will Oldham. Our critic is Will Hermes.

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