Palace, Palace Music, Palace Brothers, Bonnie "Prince" Billy -- any way you slice it, it all comes up with the ever-troubled Will Oldham, constant traveler of sepia-toned folkways and lonesome byways. By now, with his sixth album -- I See a Darkness -- under his belt, Oldham has made his warbled poetics and mournful acoustic meditations a genre all his own. And despite this record's signs of careful evolution, it's undoubtedly Oldham at the helm from the first stroke of the guitar onward. It's also perhaps his most approachable work to date, the kind of album that could transcend his cult following and let the masses in on the mass.
But it's doubtful Oldham would allow that to happen. No one writes starker, sadder, more stripped-down pieces of beautiful observation. And none of the wrist-slit contingent of singer-songwriters -- Smog's Bill Callahan, Sparklehorse's Mark Linkous, and Elliot Smith among them -- sidesteps publicity and potential success with Oldham's determination (though rumor has it Oldham recently signed with what's left of Island Records). Changing his recording moniker with each new record and treating even the briefest interview like it's a walk through hell is the kind of career sabotage that keeps Oldham's macabre fires burning. Solace and dire circumstances seem crucial to his sound, visceral elements continued on Darkness, rife in its love-and-death-obsessed lyrics and woven through its trad-but-not-predictable chord progressions. Oldham treats his deep Kentucky roots with curiosity and reverence, but doesn't hesitate to add plenty of his own modern-life dreaminess and cynicism.
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As usual, Oldham enlisted some guest musicians to record I See a Darkness, including his brother Paul, but he usually takes the stage alone, unless you count a dodgy mechanical harmonizer as a bandmate. His songs are particularly suited to such pared-down performances, and audiences cling to his every flinch and croon like a congregation cleaves to the musings of a clairvoyant clergyman. We may not walk in Oldham's worn wingtips, but after a round with these songs, we don't have to. He's done all that hard and lonely work for us.