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Will Oldham is from the “keep ’em guessing” school of music (patron saint Bob Dylan). He records under a confusing variety of aliases, Bonnie “Prince” Billy being his current incarnation. His sparse, gothic take on American roots music has won him a cult following – Johnny Cash covered one of his songs – yet he bears the attention awkwardly and once claimed to have dropped several tracks from an album because people liked them too much.
His set varied from Velvet Underground-style drone rock to sepulchral ballads, introduced by cryptic remarks. (“This one is about unfocused negative-positive drifting.” Er, right.) At one point he was even barracked by his own keyboardist for writing nonsensical lyrics.
At the core of the show were songs from his latest album The Letting Go, which the Kentucky-born singer-songwriter made in Iceland with Björk’s producer. Touched by an eerie romance, it pairs Oldham’s tremulous vocals with a female singer, Dawn McCarthy. The string arrangements that feature on the album were absent, but Oldham’s band fleshed the songs out deftly.
“Strange Form of Life” – an apt name for a Bonnie “Prince” Billy song – eddied along quietly before being swept up in a majestic rush of guitar chords. “I Called You Back” was mournful and hushed, with a spiritual glimmering beneath its surface. If Oldham’s lyrics were often opaque, here they were fragile and affecting.
The rest of the set was dominated by country-rock, with the emphasis more on “alternative rock” than on “country”. One track featured alarming synthesiser effects and another was as noisily experimental as Sonic Youth. The shift in tempo was abrupt, which gave the evening an intriguing, although at times disjointed feel. Oldham kept us guessing.
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