Singer-songwriter Will Oldham, that old Palace ring-leader turned “Prince,” just has released a new collection of emotive acoustics titled Singer’s Grave A Sea of Tongues – and, hands down, it is easily the best record he’s done since Lie Down In The Light.
The backbone of the record is reminiscent of 2001’s Ease Down The Road, by Oldham standards pretty light-hearted and optimistic fare compared to epics like I See A Darkness or Master And Everyone, but there are troubled and shaken moments on the new album, for sure, and it’s there where Oldham and his cohorts shine.
The roiling “So Far And Here We Are” kicks off with a trebly guitar and Oldham imploring, “I once had a partner/ And now that is done,” and there’s impeccably recorded (and complimentary) banjo picking on “We Are Unhappy.” (Don’t sound so unhappy to me.) “There Will Be Spring” – which posits a gray, “burning winter” yin to a bright-eyed yang – is quietly beautiful, all weepy pedal steel and subtly brushed snares and obituary-notice lyricism. “Quail and Dumplings,” the record’s first single, falls right after “Spring” and it’s got a “we’ve got God on our side” (direct quote) determinism that’s catchy, if not as riveting as moments like “Spring.” A lyrical breakdown on “Quail” between Oldham and a female backing singer, not to mention some driving but understated percussion, flesh out the proceedings. “Whipped,” rather than cutting between the rested and the wrestled, crests like a wave and it’s something to hear.
A companion piece of sorts to 2011’s Wolfroy Goes To Town, Singer’s Grave A Sea of Tongues has plenty of moments worth remembering, darting between the buoyant (album opener “Night Noises”) and clever musical idioms (the toe-tapped, almost Eastern intro to “Mindlessness”) but, like all great Bonnie “Prince” Billy releases, it’s Oldham’s alternately mysterious and soothing delivery that is the glue that holds the whole thing together. He is, as ever, the captain. On the closing “Sailor’s Grave A Sea of Sheep,” a loose (not lost) blues, he strikes exactly the right tone of reflection and weathered closure he needs with lines like “Once in a while/ I can’t stifle a smile/ even now that things come to a closing” or “It’s okay/ You might say I’ve had my day/ But my God and I/ don’t see it that way.” A younger Oldham, of course, could’ve pulled off the line; 20 years and change on, the line pulls at you.
And then there’s “New Black Rich (Tusks),” the second single and, far and away, the finest song on the record. All three minutes and change of this thing is haunted and downright incredible. “I’ll say goodbye before we meet,” Oldham whispers. “I’ll have to say goodbye before we meet. It’s not who I am, it’s who I’ll never be.” A violin solo three-quarters of the way through, followed by a bluesy guitar, is just simply intense stuff, the sort of studio perfectionism Oldham toiled with on Greatest Palace Music. (Drag City’s video for the song, which threads out a love story between Oldham and a torch singer, also strikes similar notes and is worth watching twice.) This is one of Oldham’s most majestic moments to date, a song right up there with “The Brute Choir” and “O Let It Be” and “You Will Miss Me When I Burn.”
Short version? This is an LP worth finding, one that is just at home in the collection of the ardent Oldham fan as it would be in that of the person discovering him for the first time. But, since his dust-bowl debut with members of Slint 21 years ago, through that goose-bump-inducing cover by none other than Johnny Cash, is there anyone left who hasn’t been captivated?