THE EARLY WORD: I Hear A Darkness

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NEW YORKER: [Will] Oldham has been releasing records for fifteen years, though almost never under his own name. His first recordings were credited to Palace Brothers, a name inspired by John Steinbeck’s “Cannery Row”—in which the characters’ makeshift home is known as the Palace Flophouse—and by close-harmony duos such as the Louvin Brothers, who helped expand the scope of early country music, and the Everly Brothers, whose hits from half a century ago underscored the link between country music and early rock and roll. Oldham was a student of music history, clearly, but he never sounded studious. He had an eerie, strangulated voice, half wild and half broken. And he sang vivid and peculiar songs, which sometimes sounded like old standards rewritten as fever dreams or, occasionally, as inscrutable dirty jokes.

These days, he calls himself Bonnie “Prince” Billy, and his music is a little bit easier to love and a lot harder to bonnieprincebilly.thumbnail.jpgdismiss. He has settled into character as an uncanny troubadour, singing a sort of transfigured country music, and he has become, in his own subterranean way, a canonical figure. Johnny Cash covered him, Björk has championed him (she invited him to appear on the soundtrack of “Drawing Restraint 9”), and Madonna, he suspects, has quoted him (her song “Let It Will Be” seems to borrow from his “O Let It Be,” though he says, “I’m fully prepared to accept that it’s a coincidence”).

One tribute came from the indie folksinger Jeffrey Lewis, whose song “Williamsburg Will Oldham Horror” affectionately portrays Oldham as both a hero and a brute; the joke is that most indie-rock listeners already think of him that way. And a recent, unenthusiastic review in the London Independent nonetheless concluded that Oldham was “the underground artist most likely to work his way into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.” Although he has never signed with a major label, and has never risen higher than No. 194 on Billboard’s album chart, his concerts sell out all over the world. If he remains a spectral figure, that is no coincidence. In an online tour diary from a few years ago, he wrote, “It is more rewarding to be complicit with scarcity than excess.” MORE

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