Bonnie "Prince" Billy

The Letting Go

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Will Oldham has usually preached the gospel of less-is-more, but after an own-covers record that emanated from the belly of Nashville itself (Bonnie Prince Billy Sings Greatest Palace Songs), followed by a collaboration with guitarist Matt Sweeney (Superwolf) and a churning live record (Summer in the Southeast), his work began to seem positively indulgent. The Letting Go is not quite as far a stretch, but it is yet another intriguing departure. Granted, its approach would strike most bands as skeletal, but compared to his last solo album of originals, 2003's Master and Everyone, it sounds downright gaudy. It was recorded in Iceland with a producer, Valgeir Sigurosson, who gets more out of Oldham's voice and songs than has ever been heard on record. Oldham's harmony companion, Dawn McCarthy from Faun Fables, takes a much larger role than her predecessor on Master and Everyone, and her credit for harmony arrangements tells you everything you need to know about how important she is to the success of this album. Oldham's songwriting is breathtaking, close to the best of his career, although little changed from the norm -- his surreal, fatalistic take on Americana Gothic. "Cursed Sleep" is especially wonderful, with a string arrangement that harks back to Nick Drake's "Way to Blue," haunted vocals from McCarthy the chanteuse far in the background, and a set of lyrics that build up to a tragic peak ("Cursed love is never ended, cursed eyes are never closing, cursed arms are never closing, cursed children never rising, cursed me never despising"). To the other extreme is "Cold & Wet," a downright jaunty (despite the lyrics), fingerpicked blues of the type that Mississippi John Hurt would have recorded for Vanguard in the mid-'60s, and percussion from Dirty Three drummer Jim White that could be confused with electric drums or the worst recorded organic drum set ever heard. Truth to tell, since the quality of Oldham's songwriting has rarely wavered, the excellent arrangements and McCarthy's contributions make The Letting Go the best of his career to this point.

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