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Bonnie 'Prince' Billy - Lie Down in the Light

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Artist: Bonnie 'Prince' Billy

Album: Lie Down in the Light

Label: Drag City

Review date: May. 27, 2008

With 2006’s The Letting Go, and now with Lie Down in the Light, Will Oldham seems to have comfortably completed his gradual transition from slightly creepy pseudo-hermit to the kind of bearded troubadour you could bring home to meet your parents (especially if they happen to own any CSN records). He’s more or less entirely done away with the shoddy playing, lo-fi recording, tortured syntax and awkward sexuality of his past works to embrace a more polished, professional, and consumer-ready aesthetic. Light, as its title would suggest, finds Oldham in a particularly bucolic mood, and is probably his most accessible album to date. Despite the occasional pedal steel and fiddle, much of the material skews farther towards NPR-friendly rock (“Keep Eye on Other’s Gain,” “Where is the Puzzle”) and lightweight indie-folk (the title track) than anything Oldham’s ever done. Of course, this hardly means that Oldham’s eccentricities have disappeared; it’s the way that they manifest themselves in his music that has changed.

Oldham’s more polished sound hardly amounts to any kind of commercial concession or selling-out. If anything, it feels more sincere and direct than the willfully sloppy execution and verbal shock tactics of his early Palace work. But whereas The Letting Go paired high production values with (mostly) focused songwriting and well-considered arrangements, Light feels comparatively tossed-off and arbitrary. While the bouncy opening track “Easy Does It” seems to set an emotional tone – one of fragile contentment and optimism – that pervades much of the album, many of the songs that follow don’t seem nearly as well-considered or well-executed. In several cases, it’s the arrangements that raise doubts: why thicken the chorus of “So Everyone” with densely multi-tracked vocals and a horn section, or throw a clarinet solo into “For Every Field There’s A Mole?” The instrumental economy of an album like Master and Everyone is hardly in evidence here, and Oldham seems somewhat at a loss as to how to manage his expanding musical palette.

Like many of Oldham’s albums, the biggest flaw of Lie Down in the Light is simply its dearth of memorable songs. As though arranging the songs in order of merit, the album is front-loaded with its strongest tracks and sinks into under-worked throwaways and anonymities (“Missing One,” “What’s Missing Is”) in its second-half. Most disturbing of all is an unpleasantly sappy sentimentality that leads Oldham to pair greeting-card ready lyrics (some samples: “For every man who will last, there’s nothing he can’t get past, no obstacle he cannot erase” or “the trees and flowers and creeks and rocks / hold your face with every season”) with bland Iron and Wine-style acoustic balladry.

Anonymous and bland are two things that a Will Oldham album should never be, and Lie Down in the Light at moments comes dangerously close to being both. While not without its pleasures, particularly in its first half, the album seems to find the Bonnie ‘Prince’ just a little too much at ease for his (and our) own good.

By Michael Cramer

Other Reviews of Bonnie 'Prince' Billy

Sings Greatest Palace Music

Master and Everyone

The Letting Go


Wolfroy Goes To Town

Now Here’s My Plan

Read More

View all articles by Michael Cramer

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