Bonnie "Prince" Billy - Singer's Grave A Sea of Tongues

by Kevin Orton Rating:10 Release Date:2014-09-23

Singer’s Grave a Sea of Tongues could be called Wolfroy Goes to Town Redux. It features a number of re-workings off a rather impenetrable album that was a touch too snail-paced and introspective for its own good. Here paying attention to presentation pays off.

While I was lucky to stay awake long enough for the last track off Wolfroy, here 'Night Noises' makes for a striking opener. It’s nice to hear him put some oomph and energy into the proceedings. Goes to show Oldham’s songs are usually solid, it’s just that they’re sometimes bogged down in naval gazing or self-indulgence.

He’s often used silence and sparseness in his work to unsettling effect, but when overused, the gimmick wears thin and things go in one ear and out the other. That is not the case here.

Throughout, Oldham keeps all balls in the air as opposed to dropping them mid-game with a mischievous grin. There is a focus and drive at work here missing from so much of his previous efforts. The rollicking, riff-driven 'So Far and Here We Are' follows 'Night Noises', propelling things along before giving away to another track lost on Wolfroy, the achingly beautiful 'There Will Be Spring'.

If 'Quail and Dumplings' was one of the best things off Wolfroy, it’s even better here, featuring some haunting, down-home fiddle work. For a career that's been so prolifically erratic, it’s a joy to hear things so present and inspired. The banjo plucking on the catchy, gospel-infused 'We Are Unhappy' (another Wolfroy track) might make your toe tap but lines like, “She’s taking the eyes from the dead” send a chill.

When he sings “I have chosen to be whipped” on 'Whipped', it may figurative or literal or a little of both. Still, it's a gorgeous and inspired ballad, the kind that keeps fans coming back for more. 'No Match' kicked off Wolfroy and was the best thing on it, a timeless country ballad. Well, here we have 'Old Match'. Just as good, if not better.

'Mindlessness', with its “You are out of my mind and now so am I”, is simply Oldham at his finest, looking deep into the eyes of heartbreak, knowing that’s “how truth is made”. 'New Black Rich (Tusks)' says “I”ll say goodbye before we meet” with some pleading fiddle. Another gem from the Prince. If the title of 'Sailor’s Grave a Sea of Sheep' strikes one as pointlessly arcane, it’s a plaintive ballad of regret and farewell that closes the door with a whispered promise of ambiguity.

Who knows if Oldham felt the songs off Wolfroy deserved a more royal treatment or not. If 1999's I See a Darkness is the jewel in his crown, Singer’s Grave is the most accessible and rewarding record he’s cut since. And it might just be his finest to date.

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