Bonnie "Prince" Billy's 'Keeping Secrets Will Destroy You' Has Nothing to Hide

BY Marko DjurdjićPublished Aug 9, 2023

As an artist and creative, Will Oldham — a.k.a. Bonnie "Prince" Billy — has led a rather envious life. He's appeared in over a dozen films and three times as many albums, received the rare, early-days perfect ten from Pitchfork, and was covered by Johnny Cash. He also shot one of the most beautiful, enigmatic album covers in (post) rock. He's a real renaissance dude, and with Keeping Secrets Will Destroy You, Oldham adds another worthy slab of vinyl to his inspiring and ever-growing oeuvre. 

Album opener "Like It or Not" is built on short, humble turns of phrase, likening our inherent need for connection to the inevitable apocalypse. At the end of the song, he compares our heart's needs to an exploding volcano, the lava encompassing everything in its doomed path. For Oldham, love, like annihilation, is simultaneously cataclysmic and snug, reminding us that the "end of the world isn't going away" and that "everyone dies at the end, so there's nothing to hide." 

On "Kentucky Is Water," Oldham waxes familial and philosophical, repeating the phrase "Knowing is the first step to unknowing" and turning it into an ideology of opposition and connection. The only way to stop evil is to understand it, and for Oldham, hope and community are his best weapons. It's a sentiment built on childlike naïveté, which is often much more attuned to the needs of people, and how to care for them. "Trees of Hell" is a murky dirge that conjures up images of fire and brimstone, flagellation and the devil. Standing as a hot foil to the cool, purifying "Kentucky Is Water," the song similarly features a repeated sentiment ("Satan did a dance with me and I danced right along / Maybe somewhat purged I'll be by making of this song"), employing this mantra as a means of absolution, a coping mechanism against the damning influence of everything.

The music throughout is unsurprisingly eclectic, with flourishes of country and flamenco, balladry and folk, and Oldham is backed by a more-than-competent band. His lo-fi, minimal approach is always well-represented, having mastered a sort of grandiose simplicity — which isn't always easy to accomplish with such conviction. The arrangements include various keys, saxophones, violins, haunting backing vocals, and of course, the ever-present strummed acoustic guitar, yet it never feels overwhelming or overbearing. Oldham's music is nothing if not intimate, and while this makes for some calming and contemplative listening, the reliance on plaintive, mid-tempo songwriting can and does grow wearisome, especially over twelve tracks totalling almost 50 minutes. 

On the closing "Good Morning, Popocatépetl," Oldham bookends the record by returning to the image of a volcano. Here, Oldham-as-volcano reminds us that he is prepared to take fiery vengeance against anyone trying to do harm to any of his friends, and just like the volcano, he doesn't discriminate against who will receive his molten rage. With his voice slightly raspier than it was before, he sits dormant and calm, ready to explode at any moment just like the smoking behemoth. For such a brash stance, the music is light, with a droning organ giving the song a transcendent gospel tinge. He ends the album by asking the volcano itself "How do you do?" It's a poignant moment, one that considers the Earth's feelings, something we've failed to do for a very long time.

Keeping Secrets Will Destroy You is a private album for mourning the state of the world and ourselves in it. Ruminating on the great themes of humanity — loneliness, pain, love, desolation, tragedy, elation — with brevity and gorgeous imagery, the album proves that above all else, Oldham has something to say. He is an exceptional writer, and his lyrics carry the weight, power and audacity of the modern condition like many a great novel. Keeping Secrets Will Destroy You is very much an album, a complete statement whose effect nevertheless wavers. Like any secret, it is sometimes sharp and poignant, sometimes mundane. And yet, in its best moments, it becomes a secret worth hearing.
(Drag City)

Latest Coverage