Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy - Best Troubadour (Domino)

US alt. country/indie rock stalwart returns with impressive set of Merle Haggard covers

Released May 6th, 2017 via Domino / By Erick Mertz
Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy - Best Troubadour (Domino) Few, if any, artists in the pantheon of independent music can claim the description of 'mercurial' quite like Will Oldham, aka, Bonnie 'Prince' Billy. Child actor. Writer. Mournful cowboy balladeer whose reckoning wolf howl brings the hair on my neck up. As if he needed more on his resume, now with his latest, Best Troubadour, Oldham can put 'king of the AM country sound' on there as well.

Knight of the road, part carnival huckster and part snake oil salesman, Bonnie 'Prince' Billy performs in all of these costumes on Best Troubadour. At his songwriting best he wears the tortured and bleak costume because, quite simply, he’s so darn convincing. It’s the bleary vocals on albums like Superwolf and I See A Darkness that define my adoration of his work, and here, there are far fewer of those songs. His weariness on Best Troubadour is a road type of weariness, evidenced straight out by the tone setting, easy on the ears opening track, 'The Fugitive'. The song defines what a lot of what comes next over the next sixteen tracks. Bonnie 'Prince' Billy gives us a lot of songs without strain. On more than a few, the singer even seems to begging the listener to enjoy the experience without reservation. At first the lack of real woe struck element is a void, but Bonnie 'Prince' Billy quickly fills that with pluck and charm.

Oldham is from Kentucky and sings wholesome from those good old, blue-collar roots, which is nice. That good old blue collar American has taken a kick in the shorts lately, undeservingly so, and there’s no better voice for that redemption that the one here. Best Troubadour lyrically isn’t as much about riddles and fancy as its predecessors were. It’s as though Bonnie 'Prince' Billie has pulled the alt off of alt-country and dove straight off of the flat bed, into the real tall grass on songs of luck ('I Always Get Lucky With You' and 'Wouldn’t That Be Something') and friendship ('My Old Pal') and there is even what feels like on Leonard' a hats off to Leonard Cohen on the song. But it is more guarded than simple homage. It feels like the song is paying homage to guys like Leonard Cohen, the type of influence he was on artists of Oldham’s generation.

Road songs are fine, but potholes exist here, as they do on every highway west of the mighty Mississippi. 'Nobody’s Darling' is a little too spare and the duet aspect falls flat. One of my strongest reservations about Best Troubadour though are overt Grateful Dead instrumental references, songs like 'Haggard (Like I’ve Never Been Before)' more than just borrow from the classic band’s live play off and jam style. Ever since Day Of The Dead came out a few years ago, that country sound has been more than prominent, bordering on abused. Still, Oldham pulls those spindly live guitars off to some acumen.

While this may fall short for those avowed fans of bleak Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, it reveals the songwriting and storytelling depth of an artist without peer.