On a recent shopping trip to Oxford Street’s flagship HMV shop I noticed that they had created a new category of music called “Weird America”. This predominately consisted of Will Oldham or Bonnie Prince Billy records. I thought at the time that this was an amazing development – someone had actually found a category to perfectly describe the music of Bonnie Prince Billy! What had previously remained an amalgam of folk, nu-folk, country, alt.country, roots, and rock will now be known forever more as “Weird America”. It is in this musical grey-area that Bonnie Prince Billy has always stood. In fact Weird America is a beautiful way to describe this grey-area and his new album, The Letting Go.
This is Bonnie Prince Billy’s second album of 2006, after his interesting covers record The Brave and the Bad, and it is yet again a step in a radical new direction. Bonnie Prince Billy doesn’t like to coast, and he has come up with a series of songs that are musically and lyrically different to any of his previous records. Bringing in Icelandic Nico Muhly (who has previously worked with Björk) has given the songs more musical meat with string arrangements aplenty. But it is the addition of a backing vocalist which gives the songs extra weight, in my opinion. Their voices are almost conflicting in style and grace but they somehow work well together and it really adds flavour to the songs. Overall it feels as if The Letting Go is a more accomplished and worked album than any of his previous efforts. He seems to have taken more time on the album on a practical and conceptual level. It is this overall greater attention to the little details which ultimately make the album so rewarding.
Speaking of the album’s individual tracks is really doing the record some injustice. Bonnie Prince Billy has created a mood-piece drenched in atmosphere. The record is probably best listened to as a whole, all the way through on a quiet and cold Sunday morning. Not half-listened to on an iPod on a packed commuter train.
But there are some standout songs on this album, ‘Cursed Sleep’, has some amazingly jarring and evocative lyrics, which are wonderfully uplifting and depressing at the same time:
“Cursed love is never ended
Cursed eyes are never closing
Cursed arms are never closing
Cursed children never rising,
Cursed me never despising”
‘Cold and Wet’ is a more musically up-tempo number, harking back to Mississippi Blues and early rock and roll, but with a somewhat low-tempo subject matter. The opening track ‘Love Comes to Me’ is also worth mentioning. The somewhat elegant song is perhaps the best song to single out and it is very representative of what the album has to offer. Backing strings soar as Oldham and McCarthy’s vocals work overtime in trying to evoke as much emotion as his humanly possible. The lyrics too match this musical elegance:
“When the numbers get so high
Of the dead flying through the sky
Don’t know why
Love comes to me”
Overall, The Letting Go is an understated yet epic musical experience. Unlike many other albums nowadays, Bonnie Prince Billy, has created a musical journey from track one to track twelve, not merely a collection of individual songs. The Letting Go is very different from his past work, yet it still remains within that musical grey-area mentioned beforehand. The Letting Go is different to his previous work in that the album has firmer, more permanent foundations in this music newly described as “Weird America”. This is an album which will continue to astound in 2007. It is a great musical experience and a great musical journey, and one which becomes all the more rewarding as time and repeated listens go by.