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Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy:: The Letting Go (Album Review)

To understand just how big a record The Letting Go is in the Oldham canon, a bit of background is called for. Fans of this poster boy for Old Testament facial hair tend to regard 2003’s largely acoustic Master and Everyone as one of his loveliest and least complicated records.

For Oldham himself, however, its making seems to have precipitated some kind of creative crisis. Since Oldham’s favourite way of restoring his own equilibrium is to disrupt as many other people’s as possible, the last few years have inevitably been challenging ones for his long-suffering fanbase.

The Letting Go’s marvellously grandiose taster single, ‘Cursed Sleep’, suggested that this would be the album to finally reward our patience. And so it is, though not always in the way that might have been expected. The first song’s elegant opening verse – ‘When the numbers get so high/ Of the dead flying through the sky/ Oh I/ Don’t know why/ Love comes to me’ – combines with Ryder McNair and Nico Muhly’s courtly string arrangements, and the ethereal backing vocals of Faun Fables’ Dawn McCarthy, to soften the listener up for a self-conscious tilt at glacial perfection.

The equally exquisite second song, ‘Strange Form of Life’, confirms this impression, but just when you’re starting to worry that Oldham might have shaved off too many rough edges in the pursuit of a conventional pay-off, ‘Wai’ undercuts this anxiety with some of the most brutally discordant ‘harmonies’ ever put on record.

And so it goes on. A thrillingly straightforward country-blues paves the way for a couple of tunes sung in an inexplicable death-metal croak. And if Oldham has a specific letting-go in mind, perhaps it is the fantasy that these two warring impulses in his music can ever be separated.