Ease Down the Road

Singer-songwriter Will Oldham, a.k.a. Bonnie “Prince” Billy, is one of those enigmatic figures who inspire near fanaticism, thanks to his blend of starkly emotional melodies and an unmistakable voice—sort of a delicate warble remarkable in the freedom it conveys. Starting out as a child prodigy actor in the Louisville theater scene (giving an excellent turn as a young preacher in the film Matewan), he has been lauded as brilliant throughout his subsequent musical career, particularly his group Palace Bros.

Here, Oldham ventures further into alt-country territory, and this recording features a larger cast of musicians than his usual stripped-down accompaniment. The 12 guest musicians here include several guitarists (among them David Pajo and brother Ned Oldham), a lap steel player, a pianist and a banjoist, while underground film director Harmony Korine sings backup.

The musical results vary, thanks to the loose approach (both a blessing and a curse, depending on the song). From the ethereal solo vocal of “Careless Love,” which reverberates like a wake, to the joyful sing-along “Just to See My Holly Home,” the album has its moments. Exquisite harmonies grace a lovely country duet with Catherine Irwin ("After I Made love to You"), while other song lyrics resonate with imagery involving bisexual escapades and myth-flavored dreams. Sometimes, they sound like drunken scribblings in Romantic verse ("and I’m afeared if I don’t have/ a piglet, lamb or little calve/ I’ll chop my human-ness in half/ and be as a worm or virus/ but kids I’ve had and they are sung/ upon folks’ ears my babes are hung/ rhythmically they live among/ and grow but don’t get old").

Actually, the cover photograph of a verdant field running to an open ocean, beneath a divided sky of pure white and heavy gray clouds, is a nice analogy for Oldham’s style. He can make you feel relaxed one moment, then infuse a sense of calm dread the next. Whatever the mood, his ghostlike aesthetic—which gets a gentler, more fertile reading here—is most certainly unique and sometimes sublime.