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Will Oldham - Songs of Love and Horror Music Album Reviews

In conjunction with a hardcover collection of his lyrics, the singer-songwriter reimagines his classics and obscurities as intimate, acoustic tales.

Near the end of a recent show in Brooklyn, Will Oldham brought the room to silence. He stepped to the foot of the stage to sing “Careless Love,” a nearly a cappella track from 2001’s Ease Down the Road. Now played with a seven-piece band but sung without a microphone, what was once a hushed prayer became powerful enough to fill the theater. The moment captured what, nearly three decades into his career, might have become Oldham’s defining quality: He can really sing. It’s as clear onstage as it is in his recent work, as he’s become perhaps the genre’s most hotly requested guest vocalist, making him an heir apparent to Emmylou Harris or Drag City’s own bearded, mystic Ty Dolla $ign. Oldham hasn’t released a complete set of new solo songs since 2013, but that voice keeps finding new territory for reinventing itself.

Just as it once would have been difficult to imagine Oldham—the guy from Louisville with the creaky whisper, the inscrutable lyrics, and the half-dozen pseudonyms—belting from the footlights, he also never seemed like the type of artist to solidify his songbook into one of those fancy hardcover books. But the 304-page Songs of Love and Horror spans his vast discography and includes a few tunes that even Palace lifers will have to Google; a gorgeous book, it is also uncommonly thoughtful and funny. (“So strong a love gurgling in the stomach that even the regurge is something beautiful,” reads the annotation to “Raining in Darling.”) To coincide with the book, Oldham has issued a new album of the same name, featuring solo acoustic renditions of 10 songs from his catalog, plus a cover of Richard and Linda Thompson’s “Strange Affair” and an appended archival recording that suggests just how much he has grown into his voice.

Unlike similar releases in his catalog—say, the country facelift of 2004’s Greatest Palace Music—none of these new takes on old songs are reinventions. If anything, the songs sound less melodic and more conversational here. Stripped of Dawn McCarthy’s gorgeous backing vocals, “Wai” wobbles slightly, like Oldham’s just re-remembering the melody as he sings it. Elsewhere, the verses in “New Partner,” one of his first great songs, emerge as one escalating plea, swiftly sung in an almost distracted cadence. Compared to Mark Kozelek’s stripped cover of the same number, Oldham’s version here seems almost tossed-off. As with this set’s reliably beautiful redo of “I See a Darkness,” it won’t replace the original, but it highlights the endless malleability of Oldham’s work, ripe for discovering and reinterpreting.

Offering more than mere updates of classics, Songs of Love and Horror also showcases the depth of Oldham’s catalog through obscure tracks like the slow, haunted “Most People” and the previously unreleased “Party With Marty (Abstract Blues).” The latter track was recorded in 1997 (and not re-recorded here), but its breezy storytelling fits into the set with such ease that, were it not for the fidelity difference, you might not notice the two-decade leap. It’s a magic trick Oldham plays, finding wisdom in his earliest compositions and reworking recent songs so they sound more like those old records. Lovable and intimate, it’s the type of album that could have been conceived in the 40 minutes it took him to play it. On any given day, it might have been a completely different set of tracks, radiating with a completely different mood. “Every song is built with the idea that it will be repeated,” he writes in the book. “Again and again and again.” This record acts as another quiet testament to that mission.

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