A new release from Will Oldham in any of his various forms is cause for celebration. Late in 2007, as alter ego Bonnie `Prince’ Billy, Oldham came at us sideways with his surprise EP release, Ask Forgiveness. I was never so happy to be surprised and knocked on my ass. There’s not much to the packaging. There’s a slightly disturbing sketch of Oldham on the cover and pictures of children on the back with only the disclaimer that Meg Baird and Greg Weeks (of Espers) join him. So what is this surprise of an EP? Well, at eight songs, it’s difficult to justify the EP tag, but seven are covers and one is an original. What isn’t a surprise is Oldham’s mastery of voice, even in the interpretation of the words and music of others.
If you’re like me, you probably picked this up because you found out that Billy covered Björk’s “I’ve Seen It All,” the song on which she performed a duet with Thom Yorke. That track is astounding, to be sure, but it sells short the other tracks a bit. Mickey Newbury, a country singer from the ’60s and ’70s, wrote “I Came to Hear the Music,” the song with which Billy opens the EP. It’s nothing short of gorgeous. Back to “I’ve Seen It All,” Oldham slightly alters the song, giving it a slightly frightening Appalachian backwoods feel, and despite the presence of the gloriously voiced Meg Baird, he performs it as a solo with Meg only performing backup on the chorus. In what could be the least likely cover of the year, we are treated to Billy’s rendition of Danzig’s “Am I Demon” from their debut album. What’s even more shocking is how well it works.
More in line with Billy’s repertoire is the legendary Phil Ochs’ “My Life,” penned in 1969. It can and should be noted at this point that Greg Weeks and Meg Baird are the perfect accompaniment for Oldham’s pastoral style. They certainly make their psych-folk presence felt on Billy’s one original tune, “I’m Loving the Street.” It’s more folk than `psych,’ but there’s a bit that sounds slightly like a theremin in there. I don’t know if one original tune from Billy is enough to hold me over for an entire year, but the covers were more than I could have expected. “The Way I Am” is credited to three different artists, Sonny Throckmorton, who wrote the song, and Merle Haggard and the Mekons, who later played the song. I think it’s safe to say that Billy’s version can easily stand alongside those heavyweights’ versions. Meg Baird finally adds her lovely voice to “Cycles,” a song most often performed by the great Frank Sinatra. The song becomes something entirely different in the hands of these three folk masters, more of a wistful porch tune than a croon. Then, competing with the `least unlikely’ cover of the Danzig tune, we have Bonnie Billy performing a tune by…R. Kelly. Yup, that’s right. Oldham takes on “The World’s Greatest,” a cheesy pop ballad that originally appeared on the Ali soundtrack. The song becomes everything but a cheesy pop ballad with Oldham’s deft interpretation.
Of course, we all knew that Will Oldham could master the songs of others after his collaboration with Tortoise, The Brave and the Bold. But I don’t know if anyone thought he could take on artists as disparate as Glenn Danzig, R. Kelly and Frank Sinatra and make them work so beautifully in his own style. Well, I’d like to say that I never really doubted him. I at least had high hopes. But, as always, Billy exceeded them.