Songs of Love and Horror — a new LP, out alongside a tome of lyrics last week via Drag City, wherein the acclaimed singer-songwriter Will Oldham unfurls tender incantations of songs from the Palace and Bonnie “Prince” Billy catalogues — is frighteningly, frighteningly evocative stuff. It also might be the indie-folk icon’s finest record in years.
Now, Oldham cut his milk-teeth in Louisville in the 1980s – first, as an actor – among a coterie of many other talented artists. And it’s important to remember his turns on the screen because Song of Love and Horror is surely an act of performance. A yin to the Nashville-polish-yang of Greatest Palace Music, it presents us Oldham and Oldham (very consciously) alone, just a man with an acoustic guitar and a voice that he’s magnificently grown into since his musical debuts alongside the members of Slint some 25 years ago. But it’s also, for all the sparseness, highly constructed – the arrangements are far from 4/4 shuffles (each note is played with peak intention) and Oldham’s voice curls around syllables and climbs scales with careful awareness to the fact that the listener is paying intensely close attention.
That all said, it also is simply beautiful, devastating music. “I See A Darkness,” the opener, is fragile to the point of a kind of naked frailty, though Oldham’s timbre lends it an emotional steadfastness that wasn’t underlined as strongly on the Bonnie “Prince” Billy LP of the same name. (He pulls off similar feats on “New Partner,” which shimmers brilliantly.) The cover of Richard and Linda Thompson’s “Strange Affair,” a highly nuanced a cappella affair, is amazing in its directness. “Most People,” a somewhat obscure compilation offering, and “Only Someone Running,” a Matt Sweeney collaboration appearing here in faithful, if low-blood-pressure, form, are two more pieces of beautiful performance, where you can practically hear Oldham’s fingers running over the acoustic’s fretboard or his voice trembling as he intones.
Though audiophiles will debate the veracity of the files, I highly recommend listening to the downloaded versions of the songs in as uncompressed a form as possible. I previewed the material in WAV and the crispness and vitality of the recording really shined through, something that could be lost, if only slightly, with an MP3. (I imagine the romanticism of hearing the needle scraping over this material also would make the vinyl highly desirable.)
The record wisely avoids many of the hallmarks of Oldham’s “trademark” songs, making this less a greatest-hits record than an intimate hour spent with Will. It even ends with an unknown gem, “Party With Marty (Abstract Blues),” a well-penned acoustic tune recorded many years into Oldham’s recording past. All in all, a fine outing, one worthy of the Oldham moniker, and a clear contender for those Top 10 lists critics will be compiling in the coming months.