Bonnie “Prince” Billy – Wolf of the Cosmos
Drag City – 17 November 2017
Inside the beast known as the music industry, Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s position (aka Will Oldham) must be an enviable one. The artist has managed over the years to stake out his territory, a comfortable corner within the industry that allows him to make music he loves and is passionate about. A devoted fan base and the respect, begrudgingly or not, of tastemakers all over the world allow him the freedom to follow his muse and continue carving out his own path. His career has been eclectic, recording under various pseudonyms, tackling interesting collaborations like the record he made with ambient psychedelic musicians Bitchin Bajas, and an impressive resume of soundtrack work for various independent movies to boot.
Wolf of the Cosmos is another interesting chapter in Oldman’s career. It is essentially a cover record, covering Norwegian artist Susanna’s 2007 album Sonata Mix Dwarf Cosmos. Oldham is no stranger to covers, only last year he covered the songs of the late great Merle Haggard on The Best Troubador.
I must admit to being somewhat sceptical at first, but the truth is Wolf of the Cosmos is a wonderful, thoughtful and intimate record. Minimalism is king here, and it works beautifully. The listener feels transported to a room with a handful of terrific musicians, applying all their love, passion and expertise to paying homage to a fellow artist. Oldham is accompanied by Cheyenne Mize, Emmett Kelly, Chris Rodahaffer on bass, banjo and fiddle. Including Oldham himself on guitar and vocals, this simple instrumentation never changes throughout the album and is used to great effect to create a wide variety of textures and moods.
“Intruder” starts off with an eerie unison figure played by banjo and fiddle, over which Oldham delicately sings in harmony with Cheyenne Mize. As far as atmospheric minimalist folk goes, this one is hard to top.
“Stay” is a shimmering ballad, with the musicians gingerly tiptoeing around Oldham’s understated, delicate vocal performance. The song gently ebbs and flows, until it reaches a sweet crescendo, comes full circle and quietly fades away. One of the highlights of the album.
On more familiar folk territory “Better Days” is one of the more up-tempo tunes on the album, with banjo and fiddle frolicking happily through a bittersweet song about hope for the future.
“Home Recording” does its title justice, as it sounds like it was recorded on a phone. Which, even if you’re not a lo-fi lover like myself, only enhances the simple lullaby quality of this little gem. This may be my favourite track on the album.
The finale comes in the form of “Lilly”, stripped down to a skeletal accompaniment by banjo and fiddle, over which Oldham’s vocals soar quietly and majestically.
Wolf of the Cosmos is a touching homage to a fellow minimalist and another worthy addition to Bonny Prince Billy’s already vast body of work.