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Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy – ‘I Made A Place’ review: the influential underground icon’s comeback is a soft, sumptuous delight

It’s a cult classic, not a bestseller, but the beloved alt. country star's first album in eight years is a moving meditation on life, love and octopi

In certain circles, the name Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy is one spoken with a hushed, near-religious reverence. He’s an ‘if you know, you know’ kind of a guy. An alt. country saviour of sorts, the man also called Will Oldham has a trad-styled hillbilly sound beloved of folksy stars such as Laura Marling, but that’s merely the start of it.

His stark anti-anthem ‘I See A Darkness’ was covered in 2000 by the legend that is Johnny Cash (as part of the Man in Black’s Rick Rubin-produced American Recording series). He’s also co-written songs with John Legend and shot the cover photo for post-rockers Slint’s ‘Spiderland’ album, while comics king Jeffrey Lewis wrote a fanboy ode all about spotting him on the subway in New York. We’re pretty sure that every single one of Bon Iver’s fashion decisions has been made with Oldham in mind, too. Despite this, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s fame, at most, fits into the ‘cult artist’ bracket.

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There are people out there that would likely give their first-born child to this man but there are more who have probably never even heard of him. This is a fact that Oldham is well aware of, proudly telling The Guardian in 2017: “I’ve never had a hit song, and I never will.” It’s true to say that the contemplative and comforting ‘I Made A Place’ won’t change that, but that’s not to say that these 13 brand new songs aren’t very, very good. 

It might be his first solo album since 2011’s ‘Wolfroy Goes To Town’, but Oldham certainly hasn’t been slacking over the past eight years. Instead of focussing on his own material he’s been paying tribute to his own cult figures, releasing albums full of Merle Haggard and Everly Brothers covers and collaborating with fellow Kentucky-based musician Joan Shelley on this year’s stunning ‘Like The River Loves The Sea’. Shelley has been kind enough to repay the favour, adding her gentle harmonies to a number of tracks on ‘I Made A Place’, lifting some of the darker themes with effortless grace.  

As he nears his 50th birthday, we find Oldham in a reflective mood. On the fingerpicked ‘This Is Far From Over’, he admits that we’re all somewhat doomed, but there is, happily, hope for redemption. He croons, “Though half of life is gone for good /And we haven’t acted as we should”, before reminding everyone to teach their children to swim as a luscious woodwind solo lifts the mood. “The whole world’s far from over,” he concludes. ‘New Memory Box’ is perkier, a chugging classic country tune that can easily sit shoulder-to-shoulder with his heroes, bouncing along like the very best of 1970s Willie Nelson as Billy suggests that children are the future, singing: “A tiny life might be the right way through it all”. The importance of family is again hammered home on the piano-led ‘Mama Mama’, a sad and soulful bluegrass ode to a departed matriarch. The title track, too, has a deeply sorrowful sound, but hope is always here – see the gorgeous ballad ‘Thick Air’, on which he celebrates the arrival of a “new era of awesome”.

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Oldham’s fondness for surrealism gets a look in too, with ‘Squid Eye’ essentially being what happens when a Mighty Boosh song takes on its final form. He ponders seafood, bears and oceans that “intimidate you with their motion” over fiddles, jazzy sax and jaunty guitars. Meanwhile, on the rousing ‘Building A Fire’, he calmly states: “Tomorrow is an octopus / You can look for me there”. Sure! 

‘I Made A Place’ is a soft, sumptuous delight. It’s a cult classic, not a bestseller, but we’re pretty sure that Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy wouldn’t have it any other way.  

Details

  • Release date: November 15
  • Record label: Domino Recording Co.
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