I’ve had a conversation over at By Fuselage about the pros and perceived cons of Beware, the latest album from Will Oldham as Bonnie Prince Billy. ‘Prolific’ is a word attached to Oldham in almost anything written about him, and his corpus of work does indeed bloat with every passing year: there are twists and turns enough in his career that one might expect his fans to be ready to take anything. Still, as Rilo Kiley discovered, the one thing your fans might not accept is your trying to record something that sounds like money was spent on it.
The smoothness of the production here, and the neatness of the arrangements, has raised a few eyebrows, since previously Oldham has been known for eschewing the obvious traps of the alt.county field in which he unambiguously toils. Like Lambchop, Oldham’s americana estate has always had fewer fences than a Ryan Adams or a Gillian Welch, and this has sometimes obscured his obvious influences. Beware, on the other hand, often sounds like the album The Flying Burrito Brothers never made. If Oldham hasn’t quite rewritten Sin City for Generation Y, he has certainly been less evasive about liking it.
Yet imprisoned by these reference points Beware certainly is not: the sniffy reception the record has enjoyed in some quarters misses the point entirely that if your honky tonk song has a marimba solo in it, then it’s probably not mere pastiche. Indeed, ‘You Can’t Hurt Me Now’ begins with the lyric ‘I know everyone knows / The trouble I have seen’, as blunt an eschewal of the usual country motif of the uniquely pained trouabdor as you could ask for. Beware is a fascinating, sonically diverse record which hits its mark just right. For all Oldham’s talent, few of his previous albums have maintained both their tone and quality to such complete effect. That alone makes Beware worthy of more than the usual schmindie snobbery.