The track records of Bonnie “Prince” Billy — a.k.a. former Palace frontman Will Oldham — and guitarist-singer Matt Sweeney reach back some 30 years and create a dense discographical tangle that takes as long to read as most of the albums take to listen to. Yet all of Oldham’s work bears his trademark high, breathy voice and folk-inflected songwriting, and Sweeney’s wildly diverse resume has made him into an unusually versatile and intuitive musician — he was frontman for ‘90s indie band Chavez and has played guitar or bass with everyone from Iggy Pop and Adele to Run the Jewels and Malian guitar ninjas Tinarwen, not to mention on Rick Rubin-produced albums by Johnny Cash and Neil Diamond.
The duo’s friendship and collaboration goes back a long way as well, but their latest effort — a sort-of sequel to their 2005 album “Superwolf” — is almost indisputably their best, a collection of deeply resonant songs based in Oldham’s folk-leaning melodies and often-bizarre lyrics embellished with gorgeous guitar arrangements that range from rock to country, and even some of dashes of Malian music. While Oldham’s sound is often described (not inaccurately) as leaning toward folk or country, it’s a more of an Appalachian-country/ British-folk fusion than anything that might come out of Nashville or Austin. Sweeney’s music and guitar work embellishes the melodies with everything from ornate finger-picking to ominous power chords, and he chimes in with high harmonies on most of the songs.
Many of the tracks feature only vocals and guitars, although others have a rhythm section, and Tuareg guitarist Mdou Moctar and his band play on three songs, bringing a West African element that meshes unexpectedly well. “My Body Is My Own” almost sounds like an early ‘70s hit single by Gordon Lightfoot or Don McLean (although there’s a clever lyrical reference to Richard & Linda Thompson’s “Wall of Death”); “I Am a Youth Inclined to Ramble” starts off like a Fairport Convention song but is embellished with harmonies and a couple of layers of electric guitars; “Resist the Urge” sounds like a traditional number the Byrds might have covered on one of their early albums.
As always, Oldham’s surreal lyrics leer out of the incongruously beautiful and intricate music like a weird relative photo-bombing a family portrait: Listeners may find themselves thinking, “Did he just sing, ‘God can fuck Herself’ or ‘You are a freak, you are a beast’ in the middle of this beautiful song?,” or “Is he actually listing off random animals?” (yep, on “Shorty’s Ark”).
But it’s all part of what makes this far-reaching album one of the year’s best so far. Hopefully we won’t have to wait another 16 years for the next.
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