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'Beware': Lovely, Lonely Cowboy Songs

Will Oldham, a prolific singer-songwriter who has released scores of albums, singles and collaborations with other musicians, has a new album — Beware — released under the name of his country music alter ego, Bonnie Prince Billy.

The lovely melody of "You Can't Hurt Me Now," with its plaintive vocal, keening pedal-steel guitar and loping tempo, is typical of the songcraft offered on Beware. The first time you hear "You Can't Hurt Me Now," it's easy to get carried along by its sweeping beauty and miss the fact that its lyric is all about isolation and loneliness. "The more I feel myself, the more alone I am," sings Bonnie Prince/Will Oldham, and you feel for his desolation. It only gets prettier, and more despairing.

"Beware Your Only Friend" is a fine jangle of country-rock complete with violin veering into fiddle. It's about friendship turned into, as the narrator puts it, "soul-sucking." While Oldham's collaborators chime in with companionable harmony vocals, his words are at odds with such harmony, speaking of the ways in which people who like each other inevitably disappoint and fail each other.

In the past, Oldham has released music with distorted chords and jagged variations on old gospel and blues music. But in a recent interview in The New Yorker, he described his Bonnie Prince Billy persona as "a Brill Building or Nashville songwriter who sings songs with verses, choruses, and bridges." In other words, Oldham sees Prince Billy as expressing his most commercial side — but commercial on his own stubborn terms, which have a distinctly lonesome-cowboy pokiness. It's a pokiness I really enjoy, to be sure, but it's also not the kind of Nashville songwriting that shows up in the current music of hit makers like Sugarland or Taylor Swift. It's more like Willie Nelson meets Gram Parsons' version of The Byrds — Bonnie Prince Billy is a sweetheart of the rodeo.

Oldham has another alter ego besides Bonnie Prince Billy — he has done quite a bit of acting, in movies such as Junebug, Old Joy and the recent Michelle Williams film Wendy and Lucy. In almost everything he does, Oldham radiates a kind of resignation that can be either genial or despairing. He seems consumed by his own thoughts, whether onscreen or in a piece of music, but there's one crucial key to the success of his art: He never comes off as self-absorbed. When he titled this album Beware, it may have been a signal that we should come prepared not merely to hear his thoughts but to hear ourselves, and some of our common fears and insecurities, in this lovely, passionate music.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

MusicFresh Air
Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.