In the last five years or so, as Will Oldham has steered his Bonnie “Prince” Billy alter ego away from rustic indie primitivism and toward more polished production, he’s revealed himself as a surprisingly adept, if idiosyncratic, songwriter. For the first decade of his career (performing first as Palace Brothers or Palace Music and later under the Bonnie “Prince” Billy title) Oldham’s appeal was the character he was playing—a backwoods medicine man with a taste for puns and dirty jokes channeling old-time mountain music through ’90s indie rock—more than his craft.
But lately the quality of his songs has become more and more apparent as Oldham’s performing persona has retreated. His compositions are just a little off-kilter, a few degrees away from center—an ideal vehicle for Oldham’s slyly askew narrative point of view—but they’re solidly built nonetheless. Something else that’s become clear is that Oldham’s roots don’t lie in the mountains near his home in Louisville, Ky. The source he draws on in Beware is California country rock and ’70s singer/songwriters. “You Don’t Love Me” could be an outtake from Neil Young’s Harvest; “Heart’s Arms,” with weeping steel guitar and soaring harmonies, resembles Gram Parsons’ solo work.
Oldham’s been headed in this direction since 2004, when he re-recorded songs from his catalog with Nashville session musicians for Sings Greatest Palace Music. But Beware sounds like the culmination of a subtle new direction for him, no less opaque but softer, more open, and less driven by its own eccentricity.