Will Oldham isn’t interested in tackling the trivial in his music — leave the frivolous, baby-bite lyrical themes like love and heartbreak to the other guys. This is an artist who tries to elucidate the unelucidatable, capture the uncapturable and stretch the limits of what his medium can do. Sure, that might sound a bit overwrought, but Oldham, when he’s at his best, really is a boundary-pusher—one of the industry’s most virtuosic and prolific artists.
On Wolfroy Goes to Town, the eleventh album (not a typo) released under the moniker Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, we find Oldham as lyrically ambitious as ever. Whether he’s dipping into the existential (“Stop all the moaning and emoting of faith / God isn’t listening or else it’s too late”) or undoing the very fabric of a relationship (“As boys, we fucked each other/ As men, we lied and smiled.”), Oldham’s dynamism as a poet always rises above the mix. But, the thing is, we’ve known Oldham was a poet for decades now. His place as one of the lyrical masters of his genre hasn’t been a point of contention since a lot of his fans were children.
So, when that time of year comes around again when we find out Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy is releasing yet another album, what we’ve come to look for is not just poetic and elegant folk, but something a bit more sonically challenging — something as epically spiritual as Lie Down in the Light or as courageously personal as The Letting Go.
But, Wolfroy Goes to Town comes up short of being surprising, let alone, challenging. Its biggest problem is that, from start of finish, it feels strangely reserved. I say “strangely” because Oldham has never been one to pull a punch. To be frank, he just has never seemed like an artist who is scared of jack shit. That’s part of his appeal — he pounds his chest and just goes for it. But the tempo and tone of this newest release is wildly static. Only on the album standout, “Quail and Dumplings,” does the pace rise to something above dragging. Outside of that, there isn’t enough diversity from start to finish for the listener to feel as though he’s gone on a journey of any sort. Instead, you’ll wake up from the kind of wonderful stupor that only good background music can put you in and say, “how many songs were on that thing?”
The album certainly has its moments: the slow build on “New Tibet,” the evocatively haunting chorus of “New Whaling,” the crunchy guitar on “No Match.” But quite often the locus of those moments is not Oldham himself but backing vocalist, Angel Olson. On “Quail and Dumplings” she breaks out in a solo from nowhere and wails, “I am a woman and you a man. Why wait for someday, why make a plan. Fuck birds in the bushes, let’s take ‘em in the hand.” It’s a flash of Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy at their best — a seductive peek at the red and raw expression they’re capable of, a jarring moment of power that exposes just how lifeless and vanilla Wolfroy Goes to Town can be.
It’s easy to say that Will Oldham is at the point in his career when he suffers from his own history of success, but that’s the plight of the dependable creative. It’s the plight of the artist who produces a good-to-great album once a year for over a decade. Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy has become a known quantity of sorts, and that has its pitfalls. But the good news, knowing the way Will Oldham works, we probably won’t have to wait very long for him to take another swing at it.