Will Oldham masks his feelings with a thick beard, a devilish grin, and a stage persona known as Bonnie "Prince" Billy. The 38-year-old songwriter makes no apologies about the fact that Bonnie is an act, a vehicle for his music to hide behind. As Oldham recently told The Wire music mag, watching the public overanalyze his songs made him uncomfortable. In response, he invented Bonnie — a character fans could look to for answers. Because of this double identity, many critics have treated Oldham as one of indie rock's more puzzling figures. But his songs, by contrast, are simple and plainspoken. They are heartfelt confessions about what binds us or pulls us apart. And, over time, these tunes reveal the soul of Bonnie's creator, as his latest release, Beware, clearly shows.
Oldham came onto the scene in 1993 in a different guise. He released albums under the names of Palace Brothers, Palace Songs, and Palace Music. His lyrics were a tug-of-war between purity and perversity — in Viva Last Blues' "Work Hard Play Hard," for example, Oldham sees sex as the ultimate reward, but payable only after a solid day's labor (otherwise, he warns, it's just filth for filth's sake). He sings in a weirdly strangulated voice that creaks with an adolescent unsteadiness. Add the allusions to incest and an obsession with "father and mother," and it was hard to take his Palace facades seriously. But since 1999, when he dropped the Palace theme in favor of the no less pretentious Bonnie "Prince" Billy, his music has become more personal and a lot harder to dismiss.
As Bonnie, Oldham's voice has grown warmer and fuller with age, and his albums have equally matured. Though the singer has stressed that Bonnie is separate from him, each record has shown where one man resides inside the other. Over five albums, from I See a Darkness to Lie Down in the Light, Oldham has been the lonesome romantic, a lovable fool, and a constant seeker. Beware offers more of the same, only instead of boasting your average love songs, he revels in the pitfalls of intimacy. And after years of being so antiself-reflective in interviews, in song Oldham sounds rather celebratory about what he's learned about himself.
Portrayed on Beware's cover in stark black-and-white, Oldham looks rather Neolithic. This, paired with the ominous album title, makes the album seem as forbidding as his ode to isolation, 1999's I See a Darkness. But Beware is a jubilant reflection on coming to terms with answerless questions (Have I made the right choices? Why am I unmarried? Is this all there is?). Oldham kicks off the album opener by declaring, "I want to be your only friend" (on "Beware Your Only Friend"); when a gospel choir responds, "Is that scary?," it's like having Oldham's subconscious amplified.
Musically, Beware is a Nashville fever dream of violins, echoey guitar, and horns, while lyrically he evokes the single man tormented with late-night thoughts. On "You Don't Love Me," love has caught him off-guard ("I wanted a woman who loves who I am and what I do/Then I met you"). Similar handwringing abounds on "I Don't Belong to Anyone," in which he weighs bachelorhood vs. married life. But he undercuts the weighty subject matter with musical arrangements that are oddly cheerful, like the soaring triumph accompanying first single "I Am Goodbye."
Listening to the humanity exposed on Beware, it's no surprise that Oldham counts Leonard Cohen and Merle Haggard as idols — these men have likewise crafted intimate public personas. Each successive album is an elaboration of Oldham's real character. Coupled with Lie Down in the Light, Beware suggests that the older he gets, the more he recognizes he's not in control. He seems to think he should stop looking for answers, and instead "lie down in the light" and soak up the mysteries. But Oldham, like Bonnie, is just a man. He can't help but keep searching.