Will Oldham's progression from depraved and warbling loner folkie to polished country crooner saw his music maturing without ever losing its demented core. The songwriter's early life under any number of monikers stuck to rural tales of the ugliest aspects of human nature, delivered by a cracking voice and shaky, homespun performances. Over the course of decades of prolific output, Oldham's vocals grew more refined and the rough edges of his music smoothed out, beginning partway into his work under the name Bonnie "Prince" Billy. Oftentimes he'd revisit old material, reworking once creaky, spare folk tunes into honky tonk romps or beautifully orchestrated pieces. Oldham's penchant for revision led to a long stretch when his albums were focused on covers or reimaginings of his earlier work. I Made a Place is the first set of new original songs since 2011's subdued Wolfroy Goes to Town, and it continues both Oldham's artistic development and his one-of-a-kind strangeness. Opening with the boisterous "New Memory Box," the instrumentation of I Made a Place is immediately striking. Horn and woodwind player Jacob Duncan adds saxophone, clarinet, and flute arrangements throughout, giving the peppier songs added flare and the slower, more thoughtful tunes an air of sophistication. The album is split up more or less evenly into upbeat country and more delicate acoustic songs. A busy arrangement of dusty fiddle, Nashville-styled guitar licks, and string bass on "The Devil's Throat" is offset by hushed moments like the country ballad "Nothing Is Busted" and the slowly unfolding "I Have Made a Place." Oldham's enigmatic lyrical presence is in strong form, with the bubbly rocker "Squid Eye" meshing references to aquatic life with existential themes. The traditional country-folk storytelling of "Look Backwards on Your Future, Look Forward to Your Past" bends a tale of bloody death and surreal philosophy around straightforward back-roads chord changes. Vocalist Joan Shelley joins Oldham on the more spirited numbers, adding lift to the chorus of "You Know the One" with gentle harmonies. Like any entry of the Bonnie "Prince" Billy discography, I Made a Place takes several spins to wear down the veneer of would-be country trappings and Oldham's plainspoken but obtuse narratives. The gorgeous instrumentation makes it a farmland addendum to the icy string arrangements of 2006's pristine The Letting Go. While no less emotionally dense than that or any of Oldham's work, I Made a Place feels less intense, and even fun by comparison. The album offers a lighter and mellower reading of Bonnie "Prince" Billy as he walks further down a perpetually twisting path with each new set of songs.
AllMusic Review by Fred Thomas