“Were this a purely instrumental album, it would be an excellent one” – Neill Dougan on Will Oldham’s latest collaboration
Being a Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy fan is a hard lot in life sometimes. For one thing, the ridiculous prolificacy of the man known to his mum as Will Oldham means that buying every release to which his name is attached is a pricey business. For another, the Louisville legend’s love of offbeat collaborations and his occasionally questionable quality control mean that, for every classic like the majestic, unequalled ‘I See A Darkness’, there’s an occasional turkey like ‘Sings Greatest Palace Music’ (wherein Bonnie re-worked some of his best Palace Brothers-era songs with a cast of Nashville session musicians, to bland and soporific effect).
And so it’s with a mixture of trepidation and the usual excitement that we come to ‘Epic Jammers And Fortunate Little Ditties’, Oldham’s latest joint venture, this time alongside Bitchin Bajas (the solo project of Cooper Crain from Chicago psych-droners Cave). Will it be up there with ‘The Brave And The Bold’, 2006’s oft-maligned (but actually excellent) Bonnie/Tortoise collab, or the even better ‘Superwolf’ with guitarist Matt Sweeney from 2005? Or will it languish unloved and largely forgotten alongside such less memorable team efforts as ‘The Marble Downs’, 2012’s middling psych-rock workout with Glasgow’s Trembling Bells?
In fact, the album lies somewhere in between those two poles. ‘Epic Jammers…’ certainly has its moments and, while it contains some sublime passages, as a whole comes off as just a little under-cooked. As such, while it’s certainly a worthwhile listen, it isn’t ultimately likely to feature in a list of either Bonnie’s or indeed Crain’s greatest work.
Having said that, Crain’s contribution to the record (it’s unclear who does exactly what on the record, but we’re working on the assumption that Bitchin Bajas are responsible for the music and Bonnie – obviously – the vocals) is laudable. Were this a purely instrumental album, it would be an excellent one: pastoral, cut-up, ambient psych-folk, full of blissful, languid drones. Album opener ‘May Life Throw You A Pleasant Curve’, for example, features Oldham’s immediately recognisable tones undercut by a repeating, vaguely oriental-sounding guitar sample over an idyllic acoustic pattern, with some giddy flute thrown in for good measure. ‘Your Whole Family Are Well’ is a dreamy, slow-motion organ piece that sounds like one of the quieter moments from Spiritualized’s immortal ‘Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space’, while ‘Despair Is Criminal’ features a repetitive wordless refrain from Oldham over beautiful, swelling keys. Granted, some of these tracks meander on a bit and may be a tad laid back for anyone who likes their krautrock to contain some actual ‘rock’, but overall there’s much to admire here.
The real sticking point (and it truly pains this writer to type this) is the somewhat uneven contribution of Bonnie himself. As someone who would happily listen to Will Oldham sing the phone book (and who would probably be welling up with emotion before he got to the letter ‘B’), it’s somewhat frustrating to hear his voice flit in and out of the mix – a ghostly and disembodied presence straying in and out of focus – on the likes of the (otherwise excellent) dream-drone of ‘Your Heart Is Pure, Your Mind Is Clear, Your Soul Devout’, among others. If you’re going to have as distinctive a presence as Will Oldham on your records, it seems a shame not to have him upfront and central throughout.
In addition, (and, again, we’re not sure if Oldham himself wrote the lyrics for these songs, or is just delivering Crain’s words) no other album with the Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy name attached has been so uninspired lyrically. Essentially, the words of each song consist largely of one or two lines (often the title of that song sung) over and over, with the occasional extra line thrown in. While we dig repetition as much as the next man, and appreciate that the mantra-like lyrics are certainly of a piece with the gently psychedelic undulations of the music, over the course of a whole album the impression one is left with is of someone who basically didn’t quite get around to writing proper words.
This isn’t helped by the fact that the song titles (and, thus, most of the lyrics) sound like phrases purloined from a new-age self-help book. In fact the cover art (displaying a series of fortune cookie fortunes) gives a clue as to the likely source of inspiration for this unusual lyric-writing approach, but whatever their origin, this series of “Hey buddy! Think positive!”-type exhortations eventually succumbs to the law of diminishing returns, so that by the time you get to album closer ‘Your Hard Work Is About To Pay Off’, the effect of lines like “Your hard work is about to pay off – congratulations!…Your strength inspires others…Your success will astonish everyone” is vaguely comical.
Thus, the listener is left with is a sense of frustration that what is a perfectly pleasant, occasionally excellent, ambient album could have been a real achievement with a bit of judicious editing and some application (beyond consuming presumably vast quantities of fortune cookies for inspiration) on the lyric-writing front. Then again, this is Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy we’re talking about, a man who has demonstrated time and again that he simply does not give a single solitary shit what anyone thinks of him. And anyway, this being Bonnie, we shouldn’t worry too much: there should be another album along any minute now.