THY KINGDOM COME Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy

The über-prolific, ever-eclectic,
often-inscrutable Will Oldham helms a career-topping, haunting, devastating
masterpiece.

 

BY JENNIFER KELLY

 

A private
air hangs over the Americana-toned reveries of Wolfroy Goes to Town (Drag City), the guitar notes picked out of
the air, thoughtfully but provisionally, as if others could have come just as
easily, the voices – Will Oldham, Chicago trad-songstress Angel Olsen and the
Cairo Gang’s Emmett Kelly – twined casually, as if singing in a darkened house
to pass the time before the power comes back on.  

 

Spareness
in the arrangements only accents the songs’ mournful, self-examining tone, as Oldham ponders man’s evil, life’s shortness and god’s
evident absence. This is definitely a post-recession album, evoking
Depression-era sounds, but infusing them with a despair that seems really current.
Even the heel-kicking, hoe-down swaggering “Quail and Dumpling” bears the mark
of diminished expectations, an after-the-meltdown hopelessness where “we must
tip the bottom in order to rise.” And yet, these songs are lovely, both in
their fearless starkness and in their occasional lushness, usually at the very
end, usually attributable, in one measure or another, to Olsen’s rich,
tremulous, broken bird of a voice.

 

Oldham once, famously, saw a
darkness – now he seems to be entirely enveloped in it. Shuffling country
waltzes like “No Match” and “Time to Be Clear” shun the pieties but luxuriate
in the musical rectitude of old-time country. “Good god guides us, bad god
leaves us,” murmurs Oldham in “No Match,” but
it’s the bad, missing god that dominates this blasted landscape. The music,
though, provides solace, even in the starkest corners. When “Cows”‘s sweetly-sung
but not exactly reassuring chorus fades (“You’re welcome here… but others are
not”), there’s a lift, an almost heavenly intervention in Olsen and Kelly’s
gorgeous shape-note harmonies that fill the track’s final seconds.  

 

Similarly,
“New Whaling” begins in a whisper, a jazzy, slithery sort of picking, some hand
drums and Oldham singing a quizzical lead. Yet
towards the end, Olsen’s soft refrain “So far and here we are” thickens into a
mass of overlayered voices. Shadowy harmonies twine into a lush, indefinite
melancholy that echoes and softens Oldham’s
final observation, “Oh once I had a partner…but now that is done.”   It is simply and beautifully done.

 

The disc’s
prettiest moments all seem to belong to Olsen, yet its power comes from Oldham himself, looking straight at the hard truths
without sentiment or self-deception. “There Will Be Spring” is a nearly unadorned
meditation on mortality, its guitar notes questioning, its melody broken into
hesitant, heart-broken bits. It sounds, more than anything, like the “Idumea” Oldham sang a few years ago for Current 93, at once
fragile and monumental.

 

These are
subtle songs, sparely arranged and underplayed, murmured, sighed and spoken as
much as they are sung.  There are a few
showy passages, but mostly Oldham whispers to
you. He gives you space to lean in and listen. He allows time between the notes
for you to ponder along with him, the transience of life, the cruelty of
disappointment and the saving grace of music. Wolfroy Goes to Town haunts you quietly, in a private way that is,
somehow, all the more devastating. 

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