At this point, Will Oldham, aka Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, is practically expected to release an album each year, but it’s almost always a surprise when the record does come out. Amazingly prolific, Oldham manages to stay in comfortable obscurity after each album cycle, rarely giving his releases a big promotional push. Instead, he relies on his small but fervent fanbase to carry him through each release, allowing him to experiment and take sizable risks that most songwriters aren’t afforded or even capable of pulling off. While he’s known to try new things, he’s as consistent as possible for an artist who has churned out dozens of albums and singles.
Oldham threw slight curveballs with his last two efforts, one being an Everly Brothers covers album with Dawn McCarthy, the other a sparse, homespun self-titled release he self-recorded and even self-distributed. Now, after an abrupt album announcement a month before the release, punctuated by a bizarre, fake “innerview,” Oldham returns with Singer’s Grave a Sea of Tongues, his 15th album as Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy. On the album, Oldham revisits and reimagines his older material, specifically the songs off 2011’s Wolfroy Goes to Town and its singles. Out of this album’s 11 songs, only the last two tracks, “New Black Rich (Tusks)” and “Sailor’s Grave a Sea of Sheep”, are new.
Both the reworked tracks and the new songs are improvements over his recent output, which, while captivating in its own right, had moments of listlessness and meandering. Here, the arrangements are much more fleshed-out, ditching the minimal acoustic guitar for a full Americana band, complete with pedal steel, fiddles, banjos, and backing vocals courtesy of Ann and Regina McCrary. Oldham had Angel Olsen backing him on Wolfroy Goes to Town, her spectral, vibrato-heavy soprano making songs like “Time to Be Clear” especially memorable and fitting his weary, earthy voice. Here, the McCrary sisters suit his delivery equally well, accentuating a different side of his voice. Together, the three vocalists are capable of some extraordinary harmonies, especially on “Old Match” and “Mindlessness” (which was Wolfroy B-side “Out of Mind”). The McCrary sisters combine as if they’re affirming the good news of Oldham’s Southern gospel.
On highlight “Whipped”, Oldham lets the song’s humor ring out a little clearer with the new arrangement. The subdued version on The B-Sides for “Time to Be Clear” 7-inch trudges along with the lyrics, “Yes, I’m quieter, tireder/ I’m more apt to say/ ‘You go on, boys, I’m good/ Think I’ll stay in today,'” because “I’ve been chosen to be whipped”; the rendition on Singer’s Grave makes it feel more like a traditional love song with its cleaner, lusher brand of Americana, drawing attention to the fact that while beautiful, this song has an ironic bent to it. Both reach a hair-raising climax with absolutely gorgeous vocal interplay, but the focal point of Singer’s Grave is one of the most sublime moments of Oldham’s career. Other flashes of real beauty burst out of the album, like the serene pedal steel throughout “There Will Be Spring” or the thundering acoustic guitars of “So Far and Here We Are”, which was once “New Whaling”. With all the lovely compositions and refined songwriting, this is one of Oldham’s most accessible and endlessly listenable efforts, a perfect starting point for the curious and uninitiated.
It’s much easier to think of Singer’s Grave a Sea of Tongues as Oldham highlighting the many facets of his songs, breathing new life into them and showing his versatility, rather than purely recycling them. It’s a shame that many will look at its tracklist and think the lack of new material is a drawback, which is what happened with Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy Sings Greatest Palace Music. For an artist like Oldham, who has shown so many different sides of his enigmatic and reclusive personality, these kind of experiments are essential.
Essential Tracks: “Whipped”, “Mindlessness”, and “There Will Be Spring”