CD Review: Bonnie 'Prince' Billy's "The Wonder Show of the World""

Categories: Music

"No need to think," Will Oldham explains on "Go Folks, Go," from his new Bonnie 'Prince' Billy album, The Wonder Show of the World. "It will all be laid before us, and god will guide us to our graves, smiling, singing..." It's the kind of preachy line only Oldham and a few others can get away with. Yet somehow, most of the spare, soft songs on The Wonder Show, written with longtime collaborator Emmett Kelly (aka The Cairo Gang), pull off this cheerful, look-you-in-the-eye sincerity. They're subtle, slow, and mostly affecting -- even though the twists and turns of the lyrical stories sometimes result in phrasing that might make one wince.

Oldham's music has long rewarded close listening, and The Wonder Show is similarly dense, though more cheerful than Oldham's past work. Its sparsely-adorned songs are stitched together by loose narratives that form a rhythm for its usual drum-less, acoustic arrangements. Often tentative, occasionally ponderous, The Wonder Show nonetheless shows off the skill at musical storytelling that Oldham has perfected over his last, um, 20 albums. 

Highlights include "Teach Me To Bear You," a wearying lament built from a lulling, elegant electric guitar, gliding harmonies, and a soaring six-string finale. Much of The Wonder Show sounds as if it was recorded live, which makes the intimate, signing guitar lines on "Bear You" even more evocative. Quietly galloping sermon "The Sounds are Always Begging," the album's most lively tune, is a bittersweet ode to the power of music that makes one glad the indie king is still making records. He chirps, "Always choose the noise of music... always end the day in singing!" with the assuredness of all his 39 years. You can't help but want to take the advice.

Oldham and Kelly are playing multiple shows at The New Parish in Oakland tonight through Friday and Saturday in support of their new record. The venue, of course, fits Oldham's punk values -- it's open to all ages and kinda small, with space for 200.

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