Will Oldham, better known as Bonnie “Prince” Billy, or Palace Brothers or a whole load of other names, makes country folk music that digs deep into existential themes and religion, on a search for an answer to unknowable questions. Through his two decades long career his music has become bigger, more accomplished and his new album Singer's Grave A Sea of Tongues is a perfect showcase for his progression, but for all that Billy can still draw you in as he did when it was just his voice and an acoustic guitar.
Singer's Grave A Sea of Tongues is Bonnie "Prince" Billy's tenth proper album, though there is a lot more Oldham material around out there, and offers some new songs, along with some updates of older songs. Those updated tracks originally appeared on 2011's Wolfroy Comes To Town, a stripped down affair with a small backing band that featured Emmett Kelly and Angel Olsen, and here those songs become bigger, filled out with strings, slide guitar, banjos and gospel style backing vocals. It isn't that different but is a little more fleshed out similar to how Townes Van Zandt updated his songs over his albums.
The result is a lot lighter than say I See A Darkness' weighty existential folk, but it's not all bright as familiar themes of death and religion resurface. We Are Unhappy paints images of religious apocalypse with it's vivid lyrics, 'Mind, it is going/ and faith is destroyed/ It's emptiness showing/ God's cruelty deployed'. The dark lyrics are evened it out with the contrast of a lightly picked chord progression backed with a banjo and Gospel choir.
The album begins with Wolfroy's last track Night Noises a slow and tumbling track, powered by big, sustained piano chords. Quail And Dumplings is another track getting a fix-up, and prominently featured the vocals of Angel Olsen. This version sounds fuller as Oldham takes over Olsen's verse and adds a string section for the tale of aspiration as Billy softly pines for a better future with a chorus of 'We got empty tummies but it won't always be/ One day it's gonna be quail and dumplings for we'. The meal may seem like something from another era but it's theme of wanting what you don't have is timeless.
It's not all misery as Whipped shows, with an altogether brighter side of Oldham, contains a joyous refrain of “I'm in Love”. The music is often upbeat too, Mindlessness almost prog-folk main hook could have come from a wild sea shanty and is worthy of a drunken jig with it's plucked violin and drum rolls. Bonnie 'Prince' Billy's musical ability is on display on Mew Black Rich (Tusks), a downcast and contemplative turn that shows some searing, emotive violin soloing that really lifts the song into something that could have come from The Dirty Three.
Singer's Grave A Sea of Tongues is, like a lot of Oldham's work , an often affirming listen, with the updated songs becoming much warmer with the bigger backing band in tow. Some may be disappointed that the album isn't just dedicated to new material but all the songs here are full of life, light and dark, and really seem to serve Billy's intent. It may not pack the emotional gut-punch of I See A Darkness, but it's clear that he, and this latest collection of folk songs, is still intent on finding answers.