Wolfroy Goes To Town is the slowest growing of Bonnie Prince Billy (note the disappearance of the inverted apostrophes) albums in his annual run since 1999. I’ve given it a fair few whirls and it really took a long time for anything to hook, until I realized the nature of some of these songs is not to have hooks, but instead to smoulder and burn with the occasional minor conflagration. The more melodic songs are wonderfully so, but they’re subtle. Indeed Wolfroy would have to be the subtlest of all BPB albums. Why has Oldham resurrected the ‘wolf’ again? Is he poking fun at it? After all ‘Wolfroy’ sounds like a neighbourhood friendly version belonging to some nostalgic era of the past, and something about the style of many of these songs evokes old timery sentiment. One or two online reviews raved but many seemed vaguely indifferent via the usual respect and admiration but lacking any real enthusiasm in their write-ups. I think that’s because it is hard to get excited about Wolfroy unless you play it a lot and then sit down, listen very carefully and have a good old gander over the lyrics. And it turns out to be a deeply ambiguous album, dealing mostly in themes of loss, but also power.
No Match… opens with a gently hypnotic country-hymnal type guitar melody. Here Oldham’s narrator reels off a bunch of things he’s not, which reminds me of the “Patience” 7” where the narrator listed several things he wasn’t born as. In this case it’s “no match,” though the song opens with what is surely a cliché of a paradox: “I’m no match for honest men / And I am no match for liars,” indicating first that he’s a liar, and second that he’s not a very good liar, I guess. But then “I’m no match for those who have given up / When they’re feeling tired.” Thus the narrator ain’t no lazy quitter, and as we learn, he doesn’t put his trust in fate nor in religion, yet he suggests (along with Angel Olsen who joins him here) that “those who love the Lord … are no match for me,” thus putting himself below (or above?) them—he’s hopeful, he believes in his dreams, he seeks things that will nourish goodness in him and wishes to avoid “bad gods,” “bad love” and “bad fire.” But then we get this wonderful line, “Honesty is a hindrance / When you want to be what’s true,” which could mean a raft of different things, but which I interpret as a frustration with language’s inability to capture truth, which can only exist in paradox. By song end, the narrator will “stand here and shout it down” and he’ll be “surrounded by violent light” as bad god leaves him behind. We thus get what has to be the fullest enunciation of positivity in an Oldham song yet. And dig this last line, where he shrugs off aging, in order to go on and keep doing what he does: “Well age may be a match for you / But it’s no match for me.” The tune sounds familiar, like some hymnal from the 1920s, but with Olsen backing Oldham, together they create a real sense of drama as the song progresses, her high tones an almost ghostly echo of Oldham’s voice. When the first major climax breaks, a thin organ line hovers and the two voices entwine once again, until Oldham hits that final “me” note, and a heavy electric note winds the song up. Nice.
New Whaling… has a distinctly moodier and shadowy feel, conveyed in both Oldham’s smoothly downcast voice, the softly padded bass drum, and subtle guitar. The song is sung from the perspective of someone who lives “like… a king … who rules over all that he sees,” and who reminisces on a time “when the world knew my name.” Seems he was something of a beast in the past, when living in the “old world,” having “made awful actions” merely for fun, and having “ended” a lot of men and women, including “the barefoot, the stupid, the cute and the sharp.” In between each verse, a male/female backing echo over the chorus, “So far and here we are / So far and here we are / So far and here we are.” He’s come a long way, this fellow. In any case, he now lives in the “new world” though he admits he has brought all his old behaviour with him. It’s hard to tell just how regretful he is, but the main source of his pain seems to be the loss of a partner, which gets mentioned at song beginning and song end: “Oh once I had a partner / But now that is done.” He offers us the cliché, “No rest for the wicked,” but somewhat bitingly tells us that there’s even less rest for the good. The song tends to maintain its even, though bruised melancholic keel throughout its duration, though Oldham does get to raise his voice every now and then. A beautiful high keyboard tone joins, and then we get three or four voices harmonising ghost-like, almost frightening, and it’s very effective. The song pales out quietly. A gem.
Time To Be Clear… another close miked, acoustic guitar number, with a hymn-like quality, Oldham in soft clear voice to mirror the song’s theme. We get verses with male harmonizing, and it’s all very pure sounding and stoic, then Angel Olsen joins, and again, at least three voices, lovely. So this song contains a line that connects it to the previous song: “Time to be clear and leave our old world / And build new stories here.” So another song about starting anew, although this is much more positive with its blue-eyed message, “it’s time to be clear.” Someone has died, “got news of his passing,” and the narrator is the one left holding the torch, guiding the rest of us because “I can handle what’s given / I can make mystery mine,” and he can “sing it with feeling” as one with the gift to uplift and inspire. Mid-song Olsen starts ah-da-dah dumming, with what sounds like a Spanish guitar warble. So the narrator will give the song to us and make it ours, and “your song will be great.” Hence, wash away any regrets, hold your head up high, “stop all the moaning and emoting of fate,” because “God isn’t listening or else it’s too late,” and we’ll just have a beer with our enemies and try to get on, I guess. Another striking number.
New Tibet… I don’t know enough about Tibet to know if this song specifically relates to that country’s problems, or whether Tibet is being drawn in as a metaphor for some private situation related to the song’s narrator. I sense a theme developing here though, threaded among the songs, a theme of no regrets and no apologies for what we are; a touch of will-to-power, perhaps; sans irony, it’s hard to say. The tone here is much quieter still, a low organ hum, delicate guitar, and an even softer vocal than “Time To Be Clear.” It begins with fighting, which equates with love-making, “As boys we fucked each other,” and then suggests there is no sense to any of it; fighting is the result of a drive to survive without considering the harmonious whole: “Birds fight, birds hate / We fight,” he sings, and then, “Free us and a mess of mess / Will come rolling down upon you.” The narrator admits that if he were the one in power, he would simply exert that power like anyone else; “We would crush you” because “we do what we do.” Not a strong tune as such, but certainly a powerful sense of drama at this point when Oldham and his choir raise the volume, blast these lines out. The quietness and highly pensive tune resume. What has changed over the centuries is that “we have learned to look at ourselves,” which is more ominous than it sounds in light of revelations about NSA global surveillance. The song ends matter-of-factly: “We live, fear our future, love others / And get untouched on our shelves.” It’s nice, but it sits shyly among the four behemoths of side one, the fourth being…
Black Captain… a strong and memorable song about a mentor of some kind who ultimately fails you, but his impact has already been felt, may already be a big part of who you are. The tune is pretty, in part because of Oldham’s soft falsetto, with only guitar for accompaniment, the choir, and perhaps a thin organ tone. It’s hard to say if the captain is “black” because, erm, he’s black, or some darkness takes over his mind, or he was never a true mentor in the first place. In any case the narrator has truly admired this ‘captain’ who could “do so well / That none could ever stop him.” We soon learn that this captain “lights and inspires some higher desires” in the narrator thus allowing him “to do what he can.” We get this beautiful line, “what power he has / Only I know / And now I have let my captain go.” Thus this captain has exerted great power on the narrator, still does in fact, despite the narrator having to “let my captain go.” And why? After a couple more verses about how much this captain meant to the narrator it turns out that ol’ captain may have not been sooo great after all, and that “better men number in thousands,” and also that the narrator can only watch as his “captain curls up like a cripple” hoping he’ll be buried at sea and forgotten. It seems on the one hand then, he’s willing to turn his back on his captain, perhaps embarrassed at the latter’s fall, but yet by virtue of this song, he confesses the influence has been strong: “What power he has only I know.” What kind of awful twist is that? But as with so many other songs here, the narrator wants to shuck off the past, shuck off this black captain, and perhaps go his own way in the world, with the ominous suggestion that whatever was bad in old black captain might be bad in him too. A stunning song really, which can probably be interpreted in a variety of ways, with a beautiful but subtle melody.
Cows… is yet another odd number with an incalculable number of twists at its heart. It seems to use the metaphor of a church say, though one like the Exclusive Brethren perhaps, which welcomes folks “to come and go / Give money, smiles and families grow,” but for some reason soon comes “crashing down / And hideous ruled over the town,” so that “the house was shut down.” Then we get this strange chorus, sung by Olsen and Oldham together, slightly out of sync: “You’re welcome here / While others are not welcome here.” It gets kind of creepy after that when a “voice” invites the narrator away to “another place” with “white walls and no faces painted underneath the moon and stars,” and where “fat men” smile and the blue eyes of “bearded men” shine, except somehow this all leads to doubt. The theme here is bells, and shadows, vocals almost whispered, down low. The song has no solid rhythm, but is made of parts, downward strums, the song rolling with the whims of Oldham’s lyric. Somehow the chorus redeems the awfully sad verses with a warmer tone, a whining organ line, then a military drum beat, electric guitar, and the whole song bursts out in sunlight, something about “paying the tithe to one true love.” The song ends with a creepy round, like something medieval, three singers singing things like, “We each other are the manifesto / Moving star, you’re welcome here / But others are not welcome here,” a style we’d see again on the Solemns EP.
There Will Be Spring… is like one of those very low key Palace songs like “All Is Grace” from Days In The Wake, say, where there’s barely a tune, and a few fleeting images that seem to barely connect, a John Ashbery kind of aesthetic. But this song also alludes to things passing – a father, houses, spring, childhood – like several of the songs on side one. And in the wake of this destruction, rebirth will take place, hence the theme of seasons and especially “spring” as mentioned in the title, and so everything will be named “after what we are and who came before.” So there’s some sense that the future grows out of the past just as spring grows out of winter, and ultimately winter grows out of spring. But similar to “New Whaling” and also “New Tibet” perhaps, this is the voice of a conqueror speaking, because he will also be naming new things after the “things that run in fear from you and me.” Again, there’s no rhythm section, and the song’s musical structure seems built around the lyric, which sounds almost improvised, to the tune of deep guitar notes, with lots of silence surrounding Oldham’s searching and plaintive voice. A bowed cello groans faintly. Not big on melody this one, yet still effective.
Quail And Dumplings… is the poppiest track here, opening with bass and bass drum thump and regular strummed figure. When they hit the chorus, it’s positively upbeat, with strong forward momentum, even Spanish guitar, utterly beautiful. It broaches some kind of religious theme about having to suffer in the here and now in order to receive some kind of glory in the afterlife, as in these lines, “We must tip the bottom in order to rise / Find peace in a hovel to find home in the skies.” Things are bad you see—this couple have got “holes in [their] ceiling [and] roof” while all hope has “gone in a poof.” Thus the real core of the song resides in nothing less than hard faith because there seem to be too many signs hinting this is a godless world, or that God ain’t listening. Hence, the woman as portrayed by Olsen, plays something of an Eve role; she suggests to her partner that waiting it out is a scam, and the whole song builds into something more powerful still: “fuck birds in the bushes,” she says, “let’s take ‘em in hand” while reminding him that she’s a woman and he’s a man. Then we get a surf guitar solo, such a neat effect. But as a religious man he’s obliged to correct her: “Weather ain’t judgment” sings Oldham’s husband-character, telling her that “the crimes of a criminal ain’t dealt from above,” and that “clean hearts” and “clean tongues” is the way to heavenly redemption. So the two of them return to the chorus, repeated every second verse, once more, joyously reminding themselves that one day “God and her minions” will be “our bosom friends” and eventually in return for their faith “it’s gonna be quail and dumplings” for all eternity, presuming of course, that you’re an avian carnivore and have a particular fondness for dumplings. A weird joke? Fade out. Awesome.
We Are Unhappy… listening through closely to any Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy album is always a rewarding experience because the songs always play off of one another; albums are often full of loosely connected intertextuality, and song follows song with clear, though often paradoxical, links. So following on from the desperate optimism of the couple in “Quail And Dumplings,” here the male character broods alone mired in profound doubt. The only downside about this song being placed after “Quail And Dumplings” is that it leaves you with a vaguely unsettled feeling. It’s quiet again, not a strong tune, just a softly strummed guitar, and another bruised vocal. The main sentiment of the song is exactly as expressed in the title and it doesn’t really change: “Nothing is better and nothing is best,” sings Oldham’s narrator, Olsen singing along, forlornly, feeling left behind, bereft, hopeless, with a “demonized body” and an “exorcised mind.” Where the previous song was all about faith, here, “faith is destroying,” and faith’s “emptiness is showing,” while “god’s cruelty” is “deploying.” In the end, “we are all unwise … unhappy” and “unblessed.” The song’s placement renders it almost unwelcome, and one that easily passed me by the first umpteen times I listened to the album. However, the minor key melody bridges us nicely into the last song.
Night Noises… ends the album on a fairly despondent and stoic yet pragmatic note. The narrator here doesn’t have much hope—like the narrator of “Troublesome Houses” on The Wonder Show Of The World, he’s a man of the night for whom “soiled doves are my birds,” “lost mornings” start his days, he lives in a state of permanent unknowing, has no shame and “drink[s] without economy.” There was a man who “I looked to,” someone who used to give him inspiration, but that fellow has moved away and made a home “down in south Florida.” One wonders if this might be the same character as the “Black Captain,” or perhaps the narrator is singing of his father who’s passed away as we saw in “There Will Be Spring,” when he sang “my father’s house is gone and all,” and also in “Time To Be Clear,” with it’s opening line, “Got news of his passing.” Like the black captain, this fellow was also a mentor of some kind. Says the narrator, “he taught me to make big thoughts small / And stay ruled by human hunger / Weakness we should celebrate / Not let others drag you under.” The main thing for a man of this low stature is to “keep to task / While looking in the mirror.” This whole song is like a fadeout; it’s the least tuneful here, with wisps of guitar, capricious vocal interplay between Olsen and Oldham, and little obvious structure.
So, I think I finally worked out why this album was such a long slow haul for me – it’s easily the downest of any Oldham album in quite some time. That’s probably a link to the title, “Wolfroy,” perhaps meaning an inner demon who “goes to town.” i.e. Wolfroy reigns depressive supreme over most of the album. Give it time. It’s exquisitely beautiful throughout.