In the late 1980s, a teenage Will Oldham moved from Kentucky to Los Angeles to start an acting career, and he landed a series of small roles, most notably as a preacher in John Sayles' Matewan and as "Chip" in a television movie about Jessica McClure. After growing disillusioned with the film industry, he eventually switched to music, recording his first album as Palace Brothers in 1993. Since then, his music — a liberal take on American traditions — has grown more ambitious and refined, even as his screen names have changed repeatedly. As if trying out new roles, he also has recorded under iterations of the Palace name, then made a few releases under his own name, and finally settled on Bonnie "Prince" Billy.
Yet, Oldham's film aspirations have proved subtly crucial to his songs, not because his music has any kind of cinematic sweep but because he comes across as an actor deeply invested in the dramatic and narrative potential of his songs. He sings in character, seemingly avoiding overt autobiography in his lyrics, and that sense of role-playing has prevented him from being fully embraced by the alt-country crowd, which tends to prize identifiable authenticity.
Today, Oldham continues to appear infrequently in films, including Old Joy, Junebug, and, strangely enough, R. Kelly's Trapped in the Closet. And yet, if he is an actor musically, Oldham is also an auteur possessed of a very specific narrative flair and beholden to no particular scene or school. His tales of existential woe and redemption, set against a musical backdrop that treats folk and rock as avant-garde styles, take place in a world separated into extremes of good and evil.
On his most celebrated album, 1999's I See a Darkness, Oldham details the lure of transgression and sin; 10 years later, he (or, more correctly, his character) seems to have pulled himself out of that despair on 2008's hauntingly, cautiously joyful Lie Down in the Light, which celebrates the simple pleasures of kind-hearted women and loyal friends. There are few gray areas or ambiguities in the world Oldham has created, only the differences between ideals and actions.
As his themes have developed, so has Oldham's music, which advances a peculiar amalgam of Appalachian folk, old-time country, pop, rock, jazz, and blues. Other artists have explored these genre territories contemporaneously with Oldham, yet few have done so as doggedly. Like Prince or Guided By Voices' Robert Pollard, Oldham doesn't let industry trends hinder his prolific output: He puts out a full-length every year or so, interspersed with a steady stream of EPs, collaborations, and live releases.
These one-off excursions — the gleaming old Nashville sound of Sings Greatest Palace Music, the murky reimaginings of his covers album with Tortoise, the tortured duets with Matt Sweeney, the avant-loneliness of his work with Scandinavian producer Valgeir Sigurðsson — may seem like digressions, but each release expands the scope of his music and each subsequent release considers those lessons anew.
In this regard, this year's Beware — which is his seventh album as Bonnie "Prince" Billy and his 12th overall — sounds like both a musical and thematic sequel to Lie Down, another installment in the implied ongoing narrative of his catalog. After writing these songs as artist-in-residence at Marin Headlands National Seashore, Oldham recorded Beware with the touring band he formed for Lie Down.
They specialize in a shambling, folksy sound that is as rustic as a kudzu-covered trestle, yet never quaint or nostalgic. Longtime cohort Emmett Kelly's guitar lends these songs a spiky texture, but it's Jennifer Hutt's violin that stands out, slow-dancing through "I Won't Ask Again" and stepping a bit livelier on the rollicking "You Don't Love Me." On the opening "Beware Your Only Friend" and "Life's Work," she and Azita Youssefi sing backup like the voices in Oldham's head.
Like Lie Down, Beware benefits from every avenue Oldham has previously explored, and as a pair these albums use that expanded palette to paint a more complex moral chiaroscuro. The extremes of light and darkness don't simply inform these songs but define them; lying down in the light, his character still sees a darkness. As such, every happy scene is threatened by some lurking danger. As Oldham sings on "Death Final": "Summer has me holding baby high in the air/Oblivious the pack of dogs go running over there." What begins as a casually joyous event — playing with your child outdoors — becomes fraught with peril and the need for rescue.
"I take this load on," Oldham sings on "Life's Work," over scratchy guitar and a saxophone that rises zombie-like out of the mix. "It is my life's work to bring you into the light from out the dark."
There is no crossroads, no single moment when you make a choice to live a good or a sinful life. In his world, it is a constant struggle, which makes the character's life particularly difficult but makes Oldham's long career particularly fascinating.
Bonnie "Prince" Billy
Tuesday, June 9th
Doors open at 7 p.m.; tickets are $15 in advance,
$18 day of show