Published Jan 01, 2006Although Will Oldhams multiple monikers and stark songs have cast him as elusive and enigmatic in the past, the latest Bonnie Prince Billy album, The Letting Go, is mysteriously clear and confessional. Theres no denying that Oldham is one of the most ingenious and influential American singers and songwriters of the past 20 years. Under different banners (various Palace-themed names, as Bonnie Prince Billy, and his own given name) he has released singular, soul-stirring music and collaborated with artists as varied as Johnny Cash and Tortoise. Despite his considerable success, Oldham never seems to sit still, working with different musicians and sounds and releasing records that are completely distinct from one another. While his prolific artistic output is commendable, its also somewhat mystifying.
"I dont one hundred percent understand it myself, he admits, picking at a salad in a Toronto café. "I dont know why I dont sit in confident satisfaction with one thing and continue. I think part of the reason for doing this in the first place has to do with not letting things be static not just for myself, but for other people. Theres nothing worse than hearing someone say, Theres no good music now, because there always is. But worse than that is the feeling that theres no good music or feeling stuck or trapped, or powerless to move or see. So, one of my primary motivators and reasons for living is to address those things. I want to make sure doors are opened and that people never feel trapped by circumstance. Nothing has to be any one way; theres always another route.
Though its occasionally submerged in wintry metaphors, the kind of idealised hope Oldham speaks of is all over The Letting Go. While the title speaks to personal resignation, this theme is often usurped by an impulse for survival against the odds. "I was thinking about the idea of being as active as you can in putting together a positive circumstance for yourself with the understanding that your true ability to affect the outcome of anything is severely limited, Oldham explains. "One thing I usually notice about records is that it feels as if the songs are being written from images, ideas, emotions, and material gathered during the course of writing the songs, and therefore it should be some kind of map of the time leading up to recording. Invariably and bizarrely, the record turns out to be more like a chart of whats about to happen.
In this case, completing The Letting Go led to a trail of dead. Drenched in loss and the complex interplay of relationships, these songs are about the inherent joy in overcoming adversity. As cryptic as he can be, Oldham is revealing on songs like "Gods Small Song and "I Called You Back, which delve into mortality with uncommon grace. They are eerie yet superficially cheerful and eventually took on new meaning for Oldham.
"After I asked Becky [Blair] to make a painting for the record, her father died, he says. "After finishing the record in May, my father died. Then a good friend of mine, Steve Gullick, came to Kentucky for a day and took pictures of me. His father passed away just after that.
Within his solemn tone, Oldham measures every word carefully, still contemplating the sad and unusual pattern of events that greeted The Letting Go. "I know I have to live with these songs when Im writing them so maybe, in some ways, its finding some subliminal knowledge of obstacles to come and saying, in advance, Heres a way of dealing with that.