Album Review: The Wondershow Of The World by Bonnie "Prince" Billy & The Cairo Gang
Excellent, Based on 7 Critics
Drowned In Sound - 100 Based on rating 10/10
A decade has passed since Half Man Half Biscuit, no minor cult concern themselves, uttered the line: “We’re just sitting, listening to music, drinking tea, talking about the Palace Brothers, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, that kind of thing” on their track, ‘Emerging From Gorse’. Five years on, Jeffrey Lewis released ‘Williamsburg Will Oldham Horror’ in which he pondered Oldham’s place in the artistic firmament before being raped by him in a New York subway. These two examples serve to illustrate both the level of respect Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy has held all this time, and how profligate mythmaking has followed in his wake.
Although The Wonder Show of the World is the first Bonnie "Prince" Billy record to feature a co-billing with the Cairo Gang, he's been accompanied by guitarist Emmett Kelly many times, both as part of his live band and in the studio for some of his best work of the 2000s (The Letting Go, Lie Down in the Light). This time it's special, though, with Kelly in the limelight like he's never been on record and a spare, no-frills production to emphasize the music-making on display. His playing is fluid and virtuosic but never showy, and his range is impressive, from fingerpicked guitar to lazy but jagged country-rock (on the occasional track with drums) to the brooding, stately "Teach Me to Bear You," where he tears off a solo channeling Eric Clapton during the last few seconds of a five-minute track.
“Without us / The song is nothing”, sings Will Oldham in “The Sounds Are Always Begging”. And although the art of interpretation can potentially make or break a tune, a good one can certainly stand on its own. No matter how far down you strip a song, its quality should not be diminished. The Wonder Show of the World, the latest under Oldham’s Bonnie “Prince” Billy moniker, is mostly a quiet and skeletal affair offering up only guitar chords, vocal harmonies, and occasionally some lead guitar work courtesy of Emmet Kelly.
How's this for an opening line: "I once loved a girl, but she couldn't take that I visited troublesome houses." Few hearts could. So begins The Wonder Show of the World, the Kentucky sage's first tandem outing with guitarist/Cairo Gang chief Emmett Kelly. Historically, the former has always displayed wolverine instincts when it comes to selecting creative partners, and this is no exception.
Domino have come up with an amusing wheeze to promote the 20th album involving former Palace Brother Will Oldham: 150 hand-carved bottle-stoppers in the image of the frowning "Bonnie Prince". You can't help wonder what the old Oldham of harrowing confessionals such as I See a Darkness would have thought of such a jape, but the 39-year-old is clearly mellowing. With Emmett Kelly and Shahzad Ismaily forming a trio, this is wistful, soft rock reminiscent of Neil Young, James Taylor and even Bread.
BONNIE ‘PRINCE’ BILLY AND THE CAIRO GANG The Wonder Show of the World (DRAG CITY) Rating: Like other avant-garde artists, Will Oldham (aka Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy) hates to be compartmentalized. His various pseudonyms function as caricatures or mouthpieces for different aspects of his expressed humanity. Any sort of explanation or analysis of any aspect of his craft defies the very paradigm he has created for it.
Sure to resonate deeply with the Will Oldham faithful. Mike Diver 2010 The amazing productivity of Will Oldham should set alarm bells ringing, as surely the man’s quality control can’t be maintained when at least one new studio album per year has emerged since 2003’s Master and Everyone (counting 2007’s Wai Notes, alongside Dawn McCarthy). But Oldham’s Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy guise has served him well, with only 2009’s Beware the subject of a light critical lashing.