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Review: Will Oldham Flips Through His Backpages on ‘Songs of Love and Horror’

The indie icon’s latest set lays bare some of his finest work.

will oldham songs of love and horror album review

Jessica Fey

This unplugged set is the audio companion to Oldham’s new book of the same name – a compendium of lyrics to over 200 songs he’s written for Palace Brothers, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy and other recording projects over the past 25 years. If he’s not a household name, he’s an indie rock icon and touchstone for 21st century folkies of a certain slant; he’s covered by Johnny Cash, written for soul vet Candi Staton, collaborated with Bjork, and sung backup with numerous top-shelf singer-songwriters. And like other song-poet heavyweights, Dylan and Lou Reed among them, his own back catalog has often been fair game for re-invention — see his 2004 Bonnie “Prince” Billy Sings Greatest Palace Music, where he polished and plumped some of his best tracks with veteran Nashville studio pros.

This set takes a more minimalist tack, laying bare a dozen songs with only his voice and acoustic guitar. It’s a winning approach for a musician deeply rooted in folk styles, and who possesses an almost Sinatra-esque mastery of phrasing. There are songs that have defined Oldham (“Ohio River Boat Song,” the Johnny Cash-certified “I See A Darkness”), deep catalog items (“So Far and Here We Are,” “The Way”), and of course, being the charming kook he is, some curveballs. One is a riveting a capella cover of Richard Thompson’s “Strange Affair,” which takes minor liberties with the words to deliver an even bleaker vision than the original, quite an achievement. Another is a lo-fi cassette recording of something called “Party With Marty,” an amiably salacious Beach Boys manqué showing the lusty existentialism that runs through Oldham’s entire body of work. Even dude’s knock-offs land like keepers.

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