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Published: 2009/03/24
by Brian Robbins

Beware Bonnie Prince Billy

Drag City

Jesse Jarnow

Album Reviews Editor

Jambands.com

Dear Jesse,

I know we’re on deadline and you need me to come up with a review for Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s new album Beware, but I’ve got some questions, boss.

First of all, whose idea was it to drop those ominous messages all over the tracks on this thing? “THIS IS A PROMOTIONAL COPY OF BEWARE BY BONNIE PRINCE’ BILLY” or “YOU’RE STILL LISTENING TO ” or “YOU ARE ENJOYING ” sweet Jesus. The first time one of those blasted out of the old KLH speakers here in the cabin, it scared me. I thought it was some voice from the beyond. The next one was spoken in a weird brogue, although it sounded like the same person recorded it (the Bonnie Prince hisself?). The warning after that sounded like the same guy was now playing the part of a deranged male flight attendant, hoping I was enjoying my listening experience. These kept popping up all over the album at irregular intervals like radio transmissions from Col. Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. “Dang,” I thought to myself, “they’ve caught onto my profitable racket of bootlegging copies of these promotional albums. I guess the jig is up.” Yeah, right.

Secondly, am I right if I refer to Bonnie “Prince” Billy as the alter ego of Will Oldham? I mean, now that I’ve been listening to this album, I have to ask: is there really a point where one personality ceases and the other begins? And more importantly does it matter? When you hear some of the open emotion of the vocals and the writing on Beware, you have to believe one of two things: Oldham is Bonnie “Prince” Billy, or else he’s one heck of an actor. BPB just lets fly when he sings we’re not talking volume here, just “here’s what I’m feeling and it sounds like this.” Sometimes it’s dead nuts on; sometimes his voice cracks and wavers. The point is, it always feels true to the heart of the song. Works for me, boss. And as far as the writing goes, well, does it get any more real than BPB’s search for “a woman who loves who I am” in “You Don’t Love Me”?

You say you like my eyes on me or just the way I giggle

Sometimes you like the smell of me or how my stomach jiggles

I’m serious, Jesse: you lay that on top of some cool palm-muted guitar and hand percussion what’s not to feel good about? Soft belly? Premature baldness? Bring it on, man.

Songs like “My Life’s Work” and “Beware My Only Friend” are what the Being There-era Wilco would’ve sounded like if Jeff Tweedy’s mental state could have bore up under a small gospel choir doing background vocals. Fiddle swirls around Waylon Jennings-style I-done-got-me-a-phase-shifter Tele picking on “I Am Goodbye” while “You Can’t Hurt Me Now” sounds like it could belly up to the bar alongside anything by BPB’s hero, Merle Haggard (vibraphone solo, mariachi horns, and all).

As I read what I’ve written here, boss, I need to make one thing clear: the quirkiness of some of the instrumentation on Beware doesn’t detract from the depth of the performances. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I touched this bugger off, but I’ll admit to being pleasantly surprised. For a cat who can come across on the written page as a bit odd and standoffish, Bonnie “Prince” Billy has put together an album that’s warm, interesting, and makes you think.

Heck, I’d even have him over for a tune on the back porch once the weather warms up around here. (As long as there were no weird messages in the middle of the songs: “YOU ARE LISTENING TO LIVE MUSIC BEING PLAYED BY ”)

Anyway, I know you’re waiting on a review. I’ll get back to it.

Your humble servant,

BR

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