Bonnie 'Prince' Billy 1999 David Bennun
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Bonnie 'Prince' Billy
[The Guardian, 1999]


THE LAST picture I saw of Will Oldham, he didn't look so hot. His hair was long, wispy and unkempt, a ragged beard clung to his face like Spanish moss and his eyes veered upwards at an angle with the vague and haunted gaze of the battered tramp he so alarmingly resembled. If a similar apparition had not greeted me in the shaving mirror that very morning, I would have been worried for the man. It's easy to imagine Oldham as the kind of oddball artist who one day closes his door upon the world and whiles away his allotted span shooting at rats and roaches with a potato gun.
 It's easy, in fact, to imagine anything you like about Will Oldham because he's given away so little about himself in print over the years. Under the guise of Palace, Palace Brothers, Palace Music and so forth, he's recorded a host of admirable, sometimes startling records. Typically, he combines country music of the oldest and most forlorn hillbilly school with discreet but sawtoothed rock instrumentation and lyrics so bleak and raw you could use them to sandpaper Alanis Morrissette's arse.
 Oldham's latest incarnation as Bonnie 'Prince' Billy arrives with a deadpan avowal from “a spokesperson” to the effect that “I See A Darkness will bring joy into many hearts in the coming years.” As typical song titles include Death To Everyone, Black and Another Day Full Of Dread, you might think they're kidding. Not a bit of it. I See A Darkness really is a joy through and through, Oldham's most accessible and arguably his best work to date. It's a wonderful record, packed with low-key, graceful and deeply affecting songs. The popularity of grassroots country styles among a whole swathe of younger American performers has often resulted in fine music which all the same feels more studied than poignant. While Oldham has adopted all the plaintive eloquence of Appalachian mountain ballads, his songs sound less like exercises or homages, more like, simply, his songs.
 The force of those songs is fully manifested when a spruced-up Oldham takes to the stage with his new band and plays them fiercer, harder and louder. If you get the chance to see him do so, don't on any account miss it. A live recording of this album would be a treasure in its own right. I See A Darkness is for the most part hushed and contemplative, the instruments arranging themselves with tender delicacy around Oldham's splintered croon. It's a rare moment like Madelaine-Mary, an aching modern sea shanty, when the band lets loose. But their restraint makes the likes of Death To Everyone all the more effective; it takes a couple of listens to this marvel to realise that it is, firstly, a celebration of life and, secondly, brimming with wah-wah guitar.
 This album is a quite brilliant achievement, but more importantly it's a genuinely moving work of art; one to be valued more for its power than for its undoubted craftsmanship. It confirms Will Oldham as a great and singular American music-maker. He should feel entitled to go mad now, if he likes.

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