‘The Wonder Show of the World’

The Wonder Show of the WorldEvery review of a Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy record must start, by law, with the observation that he is so prolific an artist you can never quite know what might come next. This holds true for The Wonder Show of the World, which is the expected left turn away from last year’s Beware, which was greeted by many with, if not hostility, then at least inexplicable apathy. That record was a good time country piece, which might explain why I liked it so much; but it also had all the depth, lyrical cleverness and melodic playfulness which Will Oldham fans look for in his other, less clearly populist, releases.

The Wonder Show of the World is one of those. It is sinuous and very sparse, like Master & Everyone meeting The Letting Go in a half-empty cantina. It is shorn of string quartets and brass sections, and makes do at times with merely a giggling Spanish guitar and Oldham’s lonely, earnest vocal (‘Kids’); even where there are lightly brushed snares and a bumpy upright bass, a dual vocal harmony focuses the interest and all the colour of the song upon it (‘Troublesome Houses’). There isn’t anything approaching an up tempo on this record; the album’s great centrepiece, the fluid but compelling ‘That’s What Our Love Is’, does not quicken the pulse by way of the beat.

Instead, it’s all about depth of feeling. Oldham’s voice sounds less ironic here than on last year’s effort; all such vocal identities are a pose of one sort or another (and Oldham knows this better than most), but this gambit does lend an emotional intensity to The Wonder Show which Beware perhaps lacked. This is a record about relationships of all kinds – their twisty-turny complexity – and Oldham’s renewed mix of wisdom and fragility works just right. The wider pallette of genres, too, is refreshing –  this record gives itself more time to wander through folk, blues, jazz and soul.  Emmett Kelly and Shahzad Ismaily have both contributed to previous Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy records, but, credited at last, their musical muscle tells most of all here, as everything but their deeply sympathetic playing is stripped away.

All this makes for a gorgeous listen. The songs may demand some attention before you can tell the difference between them; but the album’s unity is also a great strenth. Perfect for lounging about to on a summer evening, though you might not feel like singing along.

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7 thoughts on “‘The Wonder Show of the World’

  1. I’ve never quite cottoned on to Bonnie Price Billy and other Oldham incarnations. The songs I’ve heard over the years I’ve admired rather than loved, and I feel that if I did give myself time to love them, then I’d be pulled into the blackest of black holes. Though your review does make me wonder whether I should be brave enough to give this poor sod a go. Yes, maybe I should.

  2. I think Oldham’s many guises are well worth taking the time to get your head around – he makes much cleverer music than is the norm. Having said that, if you want to start to get to know him as easily as possible, you could do worse than Beware, rather than this latest. Few BPB fans might echo that sentiment, but there you have it. Master and Everyone also always a good BPB starting point…

  3. The songs may demand some attention before you can tell the difference between them

    Yes, I put this on in the car at the weekend and quickly realised that was a bad idea. The upshot is that I’ve only had a chance to listen to it once so far. As you say, Master & Everyone and The Letting Go are the obvious comparators sonically but in terms of temperature and tone, it seems a bit warmer and more expansive. I could imagine it filling a room in the way those other two can’t.

  4. Yes, I put this on in the car at the weekend and quickly realised that was a bad idea.

    It really repays the extra attention, though – there’s some lovely songwriting going on if you sit in an empty room and listen to it. On which note – yes, exactly right on filling a room. I guess that does mean it has a beef which the two comparators don’t. I was never won over by the fragility of The Letting Go, so that might explain why I’m so far much preferring Wonder Show. Hmm.

    Is BPB playing the UK with this one, do you know?

  5. I managed to give it another listen last night and it definitely needs the attention. Even going over the other side of the room to chop vegetables made it impossible to get much out of it. An unusual album for our times!

    I like the first half of The Letting Go quite a bit but it is indeed fragile to the point of being brittle which is probably why I very rarely listen to it. The albums I return to again and again are the richer ones like Ease Down The Road and Lie Down In The Light. This one still needs a proper exploration but I think it will join Beware in the appreciated but seldom heard category.

    Is BPB playing the UK with this one, do you know?

    Dunno. However, given it is a collaboration I think it would be hard for him to resist a few live shows.

  6. This one still needs a proper exploration but I think it will join Beware in the appreciated but seldom heard category.

    But not for the same reasons, I’d wager…

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