Every 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.