Bonnie “Prince” Billy
The Letting Go
t doesn’t take a great Will Oldham record so much as a unique one these days: Oldham’s singular voice and penchant for unadorned roots music has left many of his records, under any guise, feeling a little same-y. I See a Darkness, under his Bonnie “Prince” Billy moniker, is largely regarded as his best album because it established a deathly mood and spun webs around Oldham’s mortality. Oldham’s only proper solo record since, Master and Everyone, felt like his John Wesley Harding: a skillful exploration of Appalachian folk that required considerable talent and poise, but was ultimately too formless to find firm ground.
Recorded in Iceland with Björk collaborator Nico Muhly (among others) arranging strings and vocal harmonist Dawn McCarthy of Faun Fables adding color to Oldham’s dirge-ery, The Letting Go wastes no time distinguishing itself, complementing its frosty, scenic packaging with a lilting violin in the opening seconds of “Love Comes to Me.” McCarthy is a worthy sparring partner; on “Cursed Sleep” she does more than just coo in elegant harmony, keeping pace with a stormy string section as the song dervishes to a close. Muhly and company deserve a lot of credit, as well: his bright, ornamental arrangements drag Oldham’s songs out of their Harry Smith stasis, establishing a Technicolor ambience.
The end result is a greater attention to detail, lending The Letting Go the type of endurance too many of Oldham’s albums lack. Notably, The Letting Go doesn’t lose momentum when Oldham bows out vocally. Instead, a subtle confluence of electric piano, violins, and Oldham’s deft, mostly electric picking carries the momentum through to the next verse. Slight changes—the frosted drum machine that props up “Lay and Love,” “Cold & Wet”’s ear-to-ear, bullshit smile—contribute to the type of pacing and variety Oldham hasn’t shown since Darkness.
Oldham stopped making real strides as a songwriter nearly half a decade ago, but that doesn’t mean that he’s not in a good place: patient, mercurial, and tempered, Oldham writes defined melodies. He no longer forces his feast-or-famine vocal cords into heavy lifting. With McCarthy handling the high end, Oldham settles into his rangy, expressive pipes and sounds as relaxed as he ever has, full of the same types of questions—God, fidelity, violence—but presenting them more subtly than in past outings. His calm, reflexive tone throughout the album makes peeking at the liner notes somewhat disarming: “When the fever hits your forehead / And trusive [sic] mice chew up your bed / And you call on God / And God is dead” is delivered with almost sinister detachment. The swirling moments of “The Seedling,” the album’s most aggressive jaunt, stink of naïve brutality, as Oldham chants “Birdies say I got no children / Birdies never know / In my hidden life / I’ve made a seedling grow.”
But for every outburst, there is soft apology, emotional reprieves. “The Seedling” is followed, fittingly, by “Then the Letting Go,” a tender conversation. The Letting Go is a winter album, storm and stress tailed by lush, gorgeous vista. McCarthy’s touching presence and Muhly’s reverberating string arrangements help the record carve a niche in Oldham’s catalog, but it’s Oldham’s veteran, woolly demeanor that offers reward: it’s been years since he sounded this responsive and attentive—a leathered husband offering rare sanctuary.