It's been years since Will Oldham (aka Bonnie "Prince" Billy) was a secret. In this past decade, he's starred in the acclaimed film Old Joy, appeared in R. Kelly's Trapped in the Closet, served as designer for Frances Ford Coppola's Zoetrope literary magazine, and was featured in The New Yorker. All the while, he's released one terrific album of well-worn indie-folk after another. Curiously, as his profile has grown, the release of his music has become a much more old-school, indie affair. Outside of 2009's Beware, records just kinda show up in stores with little fanfare preceding them.
Bonnie "Prince" Billy and the Cairo Gang With Sir Richard Bishop. Showbox at the Market, 1426 First Ave., 628-3151, showboxonline.com. $22 adv./$24 DOS. All ages. 8 p.m. Mon., Aug. 9.
This is why it seems as if only the most devoted Oldham fans know he released a new album this year. The Wonder Show of the World, credited to Bonnie and the Cairo Gang, is full of calm energy, with songs that weave and waltz as elegantly as 2006's string-laden The Letting Go, but delivered with that newfound confidence and intimacy he displayed on his 2007 masterpiece Lie Down in the Light (also sorely overlooked).
Here, Oldham's voice is soft and full, Emmett Kelly's guitar wrapping around it like a coastal fog, with the most intimate and spare production of any Bonnie record. It stands apart for its grace in a discography known for shambolic folk, cracked vocals, and arrangements that teeter on the brink of collapse.
Wonder Show is a mellow album, with Oldham tackling love and companionship. But Kelly's guitar work is so good it sounds like a lover sliding between the sheets with Oldham's words. Spontaneous recording is an Oldham mainstay, but Kelly has added a level of sophistication that, as with jazz, allows Oldham's lyrics to dip naturally into the shadows and emerge for brief moments of clarity.
In the midst of "The Sounds Are Always Begging," a man awakens to his wife chopping up their bed, his dick too stiff to do anything about it (no songwriter alive tackles the sexual quite like Oldham). Elsewhere, on "Troublesome Houses," a lover won't allow her man into bed at night because "she said she could taste trouble on my mouth."
The Wonder Show of the World is less a collection of songs, more a sustained mood—pensive, relaxed, aching at times. And its intimacy is unmatched; if you listen closely enough, you can almost hear Oldham's beard brushing against the speakers.