Bonnie “Prince” Billy : Keeping Secrets Will Destroy You

Bonnie Prince Billy Keeping Secrets Will Destroy You review

It is almost certainly more a comment about me and my current headspace that a record like Bonnie “Prince” Billy‘s Keeping Secrets Will Destroy You took as many listens as it did to intoxicate me. (I won’t lie to you: part of my goal in art criticism is intoxication, to learn how to feel through a work, even ones that are somewhat counter to my natural state, and I don’t make apologies for this.) I was anticipating, given Will Oldham’s own history, a lingering darkness, a storminess of the material, a drooping and mournful willow weeping country-folk from its languid branches. And while, with studious ears, it’s not hard to hear the trace elements of shadow clamoring across this album, it is substantially sunnier than I had been anticipating.

Now, to assuage perhaps immediate fears, this is not sunny folk in the sense of, say, Jason Mraz or whatever. This is tasteful, unsurprising given the performer, and the arrangements stay spare and sophisticated, largely focused around his voice and a well-mic’ed guitar, appended only in grace elements with a small set of female back up singers or perhaps a little production trick or organ or strings. The warmth of the guitar, those simple bright chords and the gentility of the picking and strumming patterns, acts as a counterpoint to Billy’s weary voice; it was this friction that eventually cracked open the record for me. The sense of peace across this record feels closer to the worn insights of someone who’s walked the road, so to speak: someone who’s fucked up before, been wronged before, been confused before, and has now arrived at peace as much by the natural course of the deluge as by conscious choice. This turn in my head specifically struck in “Willow, Pine and Oak,” the centerpiece of the record, which takes on both its most elaborate arthouse arrangement as well as its most deeply poetic.

Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s approach here leans closer to a Gillian Welch than a Willie Nelson, letting the folk shine through on the front but with country-as-affect lingering in the back. Without having first checked peers and their work on this record, I have a lingering fear that country aspect may be overlooked entirely; this is precisely the type of record that seems to stoke in some the latent cultural urge we often see to write out country music and its legacies. But the storytelling and emotional outlook here feels far closer to the Appalachian tradition, a clear predicate to country especially of the Nashville tradition, than to something you might catch as a waspy folkie festival in upstate New York or the like. Which is a way to say the gentility isn’t an affect born of ignoring pain on one hand or unionsong and labor song on the other; just a hint of twang in the voice and you could slot him on stage next to Tyler Childers and Jason Isbell and form a clear semi-generational continuity.

Still, the heart of this record comes from an earned sense of latent positivity, one that can murmur out a line like “terrible forces intending to destroy us” before immediately speaking of transcendent love in the very next line. There is a near-buddhist sense of acceptance, not in the lay sense of saying the world-as-it-is is somehow great but instead that it simply is, that we can’t build or make something of meaning out of denying that fundamental reality. In retrospect, the lengths it took me to parse this are somewhat embarrassing; having figured it out, the record feels obvious to me now.

Label: Drag City

Year: 2023

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