Thursday, 19 March 2009

Review: Beware by Bonnie 'Prince' Billy


The Obligatory, Obliquely Self-Revelatory Anecdote Part

When I was a nipper, I used to have singing lessons.

And I was a fortunate nipper – to have been taught, successively, by two very pleasant singing teachers.

The latter of these – the magnificent Nicholas Perfect (magnificent, hear ye, not merely in name) – once posed an insightful rhetorical question that has stayed with me: 'But don't you think it's so much easier to write an interesting sad song than an interesting happy one?'

Remember that nugget of Perfect wisdom. It'll come up again later.



The Long-Have-Been-My-Struggles, Difficult-And-Painful-Is-My-Task Part

It's not particularly easy to review an artist such as Bonnie 'Prince' Billy (hereafter, 'BPB'). The last time I did so, I grappled with Ask Forgiveness – itself a tricksy wee album – and now I grapple with the newly-released Beware.

Perhaps you've read a review or two already. Who knows? You might be into that kind of thing. If so, you'll perhaps have observed that early reactions have been subdued. Drowned in Sound's Alexander Tudor isn't keen, for instance, damning the album with a slightly-worse-than-mediocre 4/10.

Straight off, I'm going to ask you to forget that (slightly smugly iconoclastic?) rating. No way is this album worth a paltry 4/10.

Indeed – [Here, Heavy Soil pauses for its own interlude of smug self-reflexion] – this is why Heavy Soil avoids any kind of rating system. Because it's all too easy for a reviewer's score to be warped beyond recognition by the forces of his or her expectation. A rating system works, perhaps, for new or unknown artists, simply as a filter. But applied to a superb, versatile and seasoned musician such as Will Oldham (the human behind Bonnie 'Prince' Billy), a rating is something of a joke. We need to be nuanced, here.

Beware is not I see a Darkness; not The Letting Go. It is considerably less dark (at least on the surface) than much of Oldham's work; more whimsical. It is also more lavish and expansive in its production. In these two respects, it moves away from what might be considered BPB heartlands – from the territory in which many of his fans may have cemented their raptness.

So let's beware [a ha!] of measuring Beware against a scale extrapolated from BPB's earlier work. For the moment, at least. Let's consider it on its own merits.



The Actually Talking About The Songs Part

Opener 'Beware your only friend' strikes out with an exuberance that characterises many of these songs – and (again, typically) the sense of ensemble and musicianship is strong. The whole record is peppered with jubilant instrumentals (provided, of course, by BPB's intimidatingly distinguished and extensive array of collaborators) – and these are carefully, neatly, sensitively combined, thanks to fine, transparent production (the kind that's good enough seldom to be noticeable).

So on 'You Don't Love Me', raucous fiddles swoop and peck, saw and squall; mandolins shimmer and accordians flutter on 'I Don't Belong To Anyone'. Meanwhile, 'Heart's Arms' opens with a wash of vibratoless fiddles and deep, buzzing, woodily resonant bass – but masterfully swells to a resounding series of fuller-textured climaxes, before ebbing away back to its original sparseness.

A good many of these songs, I might add, have rather splendid middle-8s/C-sections. 'You Can't Hurt Me Now', for instance, suddenly breaks from its leisurely, countrified swing into an affectingly direct injunction to 'Do it now and not let someday / Get in the way'. In my characteristic, achingly pretentious manner, I couldn't help but be reminded of Lambert Strether in Henry James' brilliant (but long) novel The Ambassadors:

'Live all you can – it's a mistake not to. It doesn't so much matter what you do in particular, so long as you have your life. If you haven't had that, what have you had?'

Like Strether's impassioned outburst in the novel, its directness is striking in the light of what has gone before it – in James' novel, the mannered, restrained conversation of high society; in Oldham's song, the settled, predictable, conventional country swing.

Indeed, I suppose this is actually a symptom of one of the record's most pronounced qualities: its organicism. Whether its in terms of their structure (BPB commonly eschews or adapts familiar verse-chorus-verse-chorus sequences), or the fluctuation of their instrumentation, these songs feel natural. They feel like a conversation between friends – led not by the conventions of polite discourse, but by the desire to communicate.

This means that they develop in unpredictable yet uncontrived ways.

Often, you'll be swept away by a flurry of unexpected key-shifts, or drawn in by a sudden dynamic change. Thus, whilst the form of many of these songs is more accessible than BPB's bleaker and more experimental earlier work, it does not follow that they are simpler.

Want to hear what I'm blathering about?


Dig, first of all, that woozy, fluking fiddle line, and the way it subsides into the vocal entry. Then feel how the change begins at 0.57 with the unexpected, colourful move to minor (accompanied by the addition of the organ) ... is temporarily relaxed by the resolution at 1.10 ... before kicking into a beautiful change of key at 1.23, full of sunbathed backing vocals and flutes.

This is songwriting with the harmonic deftness and nuance of the Beatles at their best. Notice how superbly judged are the swells of dynamic and instrumentation – how the music gathers pace, density and urgency to keep pace with the motion of the chords – so just as the song is moving into new grounds of harmony and key, so the instrumentation and tempo are subtly augmented to further the impression of movement.



The Part Where He Seamlessly And Not Even Remotely Predictably Brings It All Back To The Anecdote From The Opening Part

So this is where Mr Perfect's words re-echo in our ears. Crack on some reverb, so he sounds like Obi Wan Kanobi talking to Luke Skywalker, if you like:

'Don't you think it's so much easier to write an interesting sad song than an interesting happy one?'

I think you're right, Mr Perfect. And I think – for all its apparent breeziness and countrified charm – this is a pretty damn intelligent album; a pretty damn sensitive album; a pretty damn worthwhile album. And it would be a grievous mistake to follow the likes of Drowned in Sound in equating light with lite.

(Heck, these days, it'd probably just be a mistake to follow Drowned in Sound, full stop. But I'll never learn.)

All that said, however, I will – as promised – return to the subject of Beware in the context of BPB's earlier work. And I will say this: personally, I do not find it quite as engaging as 'I See A Darkness' &c. Personally.

Somehow, these songs do not address me quite so directly, emblazon themselves quite so starkly upon my mind as I listen. There is that small degree of distance. A slight sensation of mutedness.

Less powerful, perhaps.

But I'd be very, very wary of saying less good.




The mp3 provided is there in order that you may gain a flavour of BPB's loveliness. If you like, do please buy a copy of the whole album. Here's an Amazon link, free of charge.


2 comments:

Dr Thropplenoggin said...

I appreciated this intelligent and balanced review. Thanks for weighing up all the pros and cons and giving it some serious consideration, rather than just a knee-jerk kicking.

I'm more an 'Ease Down The Road' and 'Master & Everyone' lover, the sparser, intimate approach, the arcane lyrics, etc.

The Felice Brothers are now doing that old Oldham brute honesty and with a passionate conviction rarely seen these days.

Dr. T

Billicatons said...

Thank you, my dear Doctor. I think that, yes, when it comes down to it, I'm more a fan of the sparse, intimate approach, too.

I shall check out the Felice Brothers ... thank you for the recommendation.

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