Indie-hero Will Oldham began his career in "entertainment" as a teenage actor. Most notably, he carried John Sayles' Matewan as a miner and a young preacher. Not much was heard from Oldham until he reappeared in 6 years later as the driving force behind the Palace Brothers.
At the advent of the alt.country era, Palace (Brothers/Music/etc) stood apart with its unrehearsed and southern gothic vibe. However, just as the fan base began to build, Oldham stepped away from Palace, recorded an album under his own name, and then took on the Bonnie "Prince" Billy alias.
Oldham has a huge following in England and Europe where many see him as this generation's Bob Dylan. Although that's a mighty large comparison, Oldham shares many of Dylan's ways. He is a prolific writer, sings with his own unique voice, records with all kinds of different musicians, and seems to never perform his songs the same way twice.
Most of all, Dylan and Oldham both approach recording like breathing - it seems as though both need it as a source for their own survival on this earth.
Although Oldham's recordings can turn off some listeners who prefer a little more polish, the quality of his songwriting often borders on amazing. Johnny Cash is amongst those that have recorded Oldham's songs. (Showing his love for the song, Oldham oftens covers other people liberally from Skynyrd to Tim McGraw to Merle Haggard.)
Lie Down In the Light is his latest full length record, and it ranks as one his best. It is extremely accesible, almost laid-back. The band is tight so the proceedings move along with delight and great aplomb.
The lead off track, Easy Does It, serves as a statement of purpose for the entire record. It exudes a happy vibe reminiscent of early Poco. Some have called Lie Down In The Light Oldham's Nashville Skyline and that isn't a bad comparison. (Oldham as Bonnie "Prince" Billy did record a record with Nashville session men "covering" Palace Songs which is amazing as well and well worth seeking out.)
This record has almost all of Oldham's vast influences. The country songs (What's Missing Is) have a wistful longing, the folk songs (Willow Trees Bend) are spare and sincere, the rockers (Where's The Puzzle?) grind and move.
Spirituality permeates Oldham's songs, and that is no different here, but there is a distinction on Light. In past records, there has often seemed to be a pulling with Oldham himself in the middle of the "tug o war" between sin and salvation. With his latest, there is more of a sense of peace.
For an artist whose very nature - changing names, altering sounds, shunning interviews, and touring sporadically - often seemed hostile to his own audience, Lie Down In The Light sounds like an artist finally comfortable enough to let people in and have them stay a while. Rather than Dylan, it is almost as if Oldham decided to channel Van Morrison.
Do yourself a favor, pick this record up and enter Oldham's world. Few artists today have his talent. Even fewer have such an ethical approach to music, challenging the audience at every turn, making both better in the process.
- Jim Markel