Will Oldham’s wobbly voice and hill-country cadence give all his songs a similar sound, but the individual Oldham albums—whether recorded under the moniker Bonnie “Prince” Billy or something else entirely—tend to have their own unique characters. Last year’s Lie Down In The Light found Oldham in a hushed, reflective mood, contemplating the changing of the seasons and the constancy of certain spiritual anchors. The new Bonnie Billy record, Beware, is fuller in every sense of the word, from the choir of background singers answering Oldham on the opening track (“Beware Your Only Friend”) to the way Oldham stops that song cold for a muted interlude. Beware’s song structures are more open, its mood more playful. It’s the kind of album where an instrumental break marrying marimbas to steel guitars doesn’t feel out of place.
And yet there’s also a darkness to Beware, creeping in around the edges. With its pitch-black cover art and reckless instrumentation (complete with blurting horns, sawing fiddles, and deep echo), Beware feels like an album made by a man on the edge. Even the subject matter—reflected in titles like “You Are Lost,” “You Don’t Love Me,” and “You Can’t Hurt Me Now”—doesn’t convey the image of a musician at peace. But that’s partly what makes being an Oldham fan so rewarding. He eschews celebrity and keeps his long-range plans close to his vest, but every year or two he emerges with a new dispatch from deep within his psyche. This year he sounds wounded, yet he seems to be savoring the pain.