What does Iceland sound like? Over the past few years we’ve been able to slowly answer that question thanks to the music of Björk and the Sugarcubes, Gus Gus, Sigur Rós and Múm, and while there are similarities between these artists, there does not seem to be one definitive answer. One unifying theme is an ever-present string section, and the latest from Will Oldham, aka Bonnie “Prince” Billy, aka too many names to mention, The Letting Go is no exception. No, I know Oldham is from Louisville, Kentucky and not Iceland, but he did travel to the land of puffins to record his latest full-length album, his first original solo work in three years. The man behind Palace Music is prolific, needing a major database for his discography, especially the singles and collaborations. His fans are legion, trying to get their hands on everything released including covers of kids’ songs like “Puff the Magic Dragon” and a duet with rapper Sage Francis. I won’t need to inform his devotees about The Letting Go, they’ve known about it for some time, and won’t need to be convinced of its magnificence, but for the rest of you, those not baptized in the glory that is the work of one Will Oldham, let The Letting Go be your initiation.
Quite often, the first album one is exposed to by a particular artist ends up to be their favorite, or at least it holds a special place in the listener’s heart. The first album of Oldham’s I ever heard was 1999’s I See a Darkness, the first under the Billy moniker. After hearing The Letting Go, somewhat of a companion piece to that BPB debut, I can safely say that I’ve found its equal. The Letting Go has its share of darkness, with the opening track “Love Comes To Me” describing skies full of the dead and the death of god, but the title and chorus shows us a side of Billy to which we are not often exposed. Producer Valgeir Sigurdsson, who had previously worked with some of Iceland’s biggest stars, has managed to elicit Oldham’s voice at its most beautiful. Not only that, but Oldham has found possibly his best female foil in Dawn McCarthy of Faun Fables. Add to that the sweeping string sections that seem to make stunning aural landscapes of every Icelandic musical endeavor, and you have one of Oldham’s most accomplished works.
“Wai” is a continuation of the first track, finding Billy again referencing death, but repeating, “O love O love, O careless love, I only want to lay with you.” Oldham seems to be seeking an escape from the fear, hate, death and paranoia that have pervaded the rest of the world. Maybe that’s why he retreated to Iceland for the recording of this album. Its incredible natural beauty, rugged landscapes and isolation have seemingly affected Oldham in a way no other place has. Having also spent time this year in Scotland and New Zealand, also known for their natural beauty, this seems to hold true. “Cursed Sleep” is the first single from The Letting Go, and with its emotive strings, intricate guitar work and moments of dramatic license, Billy finds himself in Nick Drake territory, and comfortably so.
The Letting Go has its spare moments, such as in “No Bad News,” which makes it comparable to several of the amazing tracks from I See A Darkness, but there always seems to be a sunrise on the horizon. Hope springs eternal on this album, as can be found in its last lines, one of the references which makes up the album’s title, “Hey little bird, thank you for not letting go of me when I let go of you.” The whistling, backup vocals and strings that back these final words is one of the most poignant moments on the album. “Cold & Wet” changes things up a little, taking Billy out of Iceland and into a Southern blues joint. “Big Friday” finds him in an even older folk vein, mining the traditional sounds of Americana. Another unifying theme of Icelandic music happens to be interesting uses of unlikely percussion sources, and “Lay and Love” employs this tradition. “The Seedling” is probably the closest thing to songs from I See a Darkness, finding Billy’s voice a little more strained, the strings take a darker turn, and along with the jagged guitars are somewhat menacing.
The title track is the best use of Dawn McCarthy on the album, which makes sense considering that she wrote her own parts and arrangements for them. The song can be appreciated on a few levels. You can listen to either one of their isolated lines as a story in itself, or you can listen to them intertwined, as they are presented, for a more complex picture, two sides of a youthful memory of friends playing in the snow. Almost needless to say, it’s one of Oldham’s most beautiful collaborations. “God’s Small Song” has some Sigur Rós-like echoing notes that put the song into an otherwordly place. “I Called You Back” ends the album where it began, with Billy’s incredibly beautiful voice and a message of love, in a way that I suppose only Iceland could elicit.
In the HBO film, The Girl in the Café, Lawrence (Bill Nighy) and Gina (Kelly McDonald) say that everyone in the world knows at least one interesting fact about Iceland. For Lawrence it was that Boris Spassky played chess against Bobby Fischer in Iceland in 1972. For Gina it was that Björk, `the coolest woman in the world,’ was from there. Thanks to an obsessed ex-girlfriend I happen to know a lot more than one fact, but the only one that seems to matter right now is that Bonnie “Prince” Billy recorded his finest work there, The Letting Go.
Bonnie “Prince” Billy- I See A Darkness
Faun Fables- The Transit Rider
Jason Molina- Let Me Go, Let Me Go, Let Me Go