Willie Reviews Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s “I Made a Place”

Willie Reviews Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s “I Made a Place”

Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s new album I Made a Place may just lull you into its countrified charm. Here’s RPM’s review:

I’m disappointed to say I didn’t even get through the first part of the Ken Burns series about country music, but I attribute that to my own reluctance to watch parades of talking heads (it’s not your fault, Dolly Parton!). But what all the country artists agreed on was that the genre eases your worries and washes away your sadness, even if you’re still soaking in the runoff. Amazingly, it’s that easy to find the thesis of country music. I Made a Place, the latest record by Bonnie “Prince” Billy (AKA Will Oldham), marks his first album of original songs since 2011, and it screams country. In contrast to his classic 1999 record I See a Darkness, he doesn’t play a tortured soul floating through a nasty in-between. Rather, Oldham settles in comfortably to a song arc that leads from celebratory folk fervor to a quieter, soothing reminder of the way things are. Deceptively simple, the album is its own therapy, finding comfort in the balance between buoyant melancholy and slow sympathy.

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With a few exceptions, the first half of the record  takes us high up with fuller, quicker tunes and then descends as it goes on. The opening track, “New Memory Box,” introduces us to the album’s old-fashioned aesthetic by leaning into its repeated choruses and working with Oldham’s almost-yodeling, Jimmie-Rodgers-type vocals. In that same style, “The Devil’s Throat” takes the classic songwriting method of putting variations on a single idea and absorbs it entirely. The first verse goes, “A bad captain won’t give out good orders / A bad sideshow won’t show good mutilation / A bad emperor won’t redraw good borders / A bad tailor won’t make good alterations.” It’s easy to imagine these words written in an old, dusty book or said in succession by a table of old-timers. But the song takes one step further, saying “That’s what there is / That’s all she wrote.” Not only does it proudly insist these things, it proposes that the mysticism of conventional wisdom should be celebrated. Whether it’s all we’re capable of knowing or if it’s just a practical way to live life, the speaker sings it like a preacher. Morals shall be found in the everyday, so don’t overlook what you see and hear around you. You’re not too good for it!

In the single “Squid Eye,” Oldham plays a freewheeling God surrounded by what sounds almost exactly like a Van Morrison song, accompanied by flutes and saxophone. Swimming around with the idea of a third eye and a porous consciousness, Oldham sings “Time to reclaim what is there / Time to recapture the world / Potty train a kodiak bear.” We see the gleefully unfettered side of his music, but the country remains present. It’s tied down tightly by anaphora and the solid construction of the song. Each mention of a third eye manages to pass without consequence to us because Oldham never lets it get too far away.

Bonnie “Prince” Billy, photo by Cristian Hansen

The second half of the record takes things down a few levels. It finds  its footing in a more lonesome style, whether literally unaccompanied or figuratively solo. “This Is Far From Over” tells a story of a lonely traveller on a future earth, one guided only by natural landmarks. There are shades of eternal recurrence, but it speaks less literally to the quickly changing earth. “Mama Mama” falls in the figuratively lonesome camp, and it’s an honest to goodness cowboy song. It uses a loping gallop of a movie cowboy, fully aware of its Western melodrama.

Many of the songs on this album share the idea of plain-stated truths, and the closing track is no exception. “Building a Fire” celebrates method, building higher and higher order observations, small sticks to large logs. Following the leaps is no problem, and all metaphor makes sense with such a smooth narrative. These songs are crafted by a talented songwriter who has once again found his groove. I hope he stays there a while.

Score: A bird carefully weaving twigs to form its nest.

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