There’s not more than a handful of singers whose voices more clearly convey feelings of loss and despair than Bonnie “Prince” Billie, the moniker under which the mysterious and well-respected Will Oldham is currently recording his lo-fi, folk- and country-tinged material. He’s so adept at this tonal, almost jazz-like type of musical communication, in fact, that it’s easy to listen to one of his records from start to finish, paying no attention to the lyrical content whatsoever and yet still come away feeling as if you’ve understood everything he was trying to say. With the exception of a few pop-oriented songs like ‘I Send My Love To You’ or ‘Work Hard/Play Hard’, Oldham has somehow managed for ten years now to merely lurk in the background of his own songs.
But on much of The Letting Go, he’s joined at the microphone by a woman named Dawn McCarthy, and the effect she has on his songs, and, more importantly, the listener’s experience with them, is immeasurable. By providing a harmonic counterpoint to Oldham, she actually makes it so that his vocals stand out more, the way a photograph does when it’s mounted properly. Each time she unleashes her dark, expressive coos, Oldham’s parts come almost as a surprise, and as a result, he winds up seeming more naked and vulnerable than he ever has before. Lines like “When the numbers get too high/Of the dead flying through the sky/Oh I don’t know why/Love comes to me” jump to the forefront and reveal a sweeter side of our narrator. While on the contrary, there are lines like “And the older that we get, we know that nothing else for us is possible” that bespeak a sad resignation that is probably more in keeping with our preconceived notions of Oldham.
The musical accompaniment throughout is not terribly dissimilar to what we’ve come to expect from him. You get lots of soft drumming, quietly-strummed guitars and mood-enhancing strings serving to support his deceivingly upbeat melodies. The star this time around, though, is most certainly Oldham himself — by way of Dawn McCarthy, of course, about whom I’m hoping to learn a lot more.