“Superwolf”: Sincere rock

John-Paul Anthony

Will Oldham is a strange man, and anyone familiar with the 35-year-old who sings an odd brand of weary Americana from behind numerous names and appearances knows this.

After first experiencing some success as an actor, Oldham recorded a catalog of music under a variety of aliases – music largely categorized by sparse and beautiful sonic arrangements accompanied by equally breathtaking lyrical composition.

Oldham operates far below the radar of the mainstream and the popularly-accepted abonormalities of independent music. The work that has received most critical acclaim were the songs he recorded as Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, also known as the guy with the scary beard.

2004 saw artists such as Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom gain considerable success in the world of independent music by adapting much of Oldham’s style and infusing their own quirky brand of personality into the pattern.

However, they failed to deliver Oldham’s brand of sometimes lyrically absurd lines with his sense of true poetry and seriousness. No one today, including Banhart, can deliver a line like, “I have often said that I would like to be dead in a shark’s mouth” with the gravity Oldham does.

What’s more, when he decides to get completely serious, Oldham is matchless in the emotion he can project through sounds and words.

No one but Oldham can open a record by singing a line from within a shark’s mouth and expect to be taken seriously for the remaining 40 minutes, but he can and does on “My Home Is The Sea,” the opening track to his Jan. 25 release, “Superwolf.”

While Oldham has recorded a number of solo releases as Billy, most notably 1999’s “I See a Darkness,” this latest record marks the only time he has shared songwriting credits with another musician. However, although former Zwan guitarist Matt Sweeny gets shared billing with Billy on the cover of the record, it becomes apparent to the Oldham-trained ear that the only role Sweeny fills is that of secondary guitarist and backup singer.

This is not to say that Sweeny is not important on this record – both his guitar stylings and vocal ability complement Oldham’s talent amazingly and seem to anchor Oldham’s drifting melodies, somehow making the record even more complex and enjoyable to a fan of Oldham’s. After listening to “Superwolf,” one can only hope they continue to collaborate on releases far into the future.

However, the real talent showcased on the CD remains Oldham’s. Typical lyrical themes of death and failed human relations remain as residue from his previous work, with the powerful music existing as a hybrid of his earlier stylings. Simply stated, this is Oldham at his creative best, avoiding the minimal mistakes since “Darkness” while creating a work of art that is not simply a rehashing of a previous masterpiece’s pattern.

The album has its fair share of transcendent moments, most notably the sonic explosion during “Goat and Ram,” featuring layered vocals and crunching guitar immediately following a wrenchingly subdued buildup, a moment second only to the cascading guitar line and perfectly crafted lyrics falling toward the eerie sampled dialogue in the epic “Blood Embrace.”

That being said, there seems to be no weak song on the record. Each stands alone as strongly as it does among its 10 counterparts.

“Superwolf” is a record that will seem both familiar and progressive to fans of Oldham. The same world-weary voice floats through a haze of fingerpicked guitar and beautiful arrangements, all the while benefitting from Sweeny’s fresh, complementary contrast (and George Harrison mimicry during the outro of “Lift Us Up”).

For newcomers to Oldham’s unique musical stylings, the album provides a wonderful introduction to the alternate reality of a man with a very big beard and an even bigger talent for writing perfectly sincere music in a world of pretension and falsity.