A chorus on Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s new record, The Letting Go (Drag City), begins with a familiar apostrophe: “O love o love o careless love.” In the most desperate stanza of Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour,” a car radio bleats the same refrain from the old folk song, a dark piece of Americana about the unforeseen consequences of passion. Coming from Will Oldham, the man behind the Bonnie “Prince” persona, the “careless love” chorus is a fitting tribute: For more than a decade now, he’s been reinvigorating the singer-songwriter genre by clothing melancholy confession in the rags of Appalachian Gothic.
First it’s “careless love,” and then, over a distant, ominous rumble of drums and paired with an eerie high harmony, Mr. Oldham sings, “I’ve found the hard way love is true.” It’s his favorite subject: Often treacherous, sometimes forbidden (he’s even penned ballads about unnatural attraction between brother and sister), love is finally the only shot at redemption.
On his latest L.P., Mr. Oldham confronts obsession of the doomed variety in the driving, minor-key waltz of “Strange Form of Life” and in the bluesy wail of “Cursed Sleep.” But salvation, fleetingly glimpsed, is clearly audible on other songs. The foreboding swells of a string quartet introduce the nocturnal verses of “Love Comes to Me,” but the gorgeously spare bridge proclaims, “I’m longing to be born for you that’s her”; the last few notes of the song ascend unexpectedly to a brighter place. Similarly, the tense, sinister march of “No Bad News” is relieved by the suddenly tender coda of “Hey, little bird, thank you for not letting go of me when I let go of you.”
The Letting Go is Mr. Oldham’s first album of new solo studio material since the gently arresting Master and Everyone (2003), which consciously evoked a living-room setting (with stray chair squeaks and foot-tapping) and surrendered almost completely to conventional beauty in its melodies and arrangements. For the new record, he’s assembled perhaps his most accomplished backing band, and he achieves a fuller, richer and at times more challenging sound. The vocal harmonies of Faun Fables singer Dawn McCarthy provide the most conspicuous texture: She sounds like a ghost from an Alan Lomax field recording. Just as crucial, though, are the tremulous strings, the sinuous electric guitar parts of Emmett Kelly, and the expert percussion from Jim White (of the Dirty Three), one of rock’s most inventive and sensitive drummers.
Mr. Oldham’s lyrics explore tricky, eccentric territory on The Letting Go. At times the odd diction, faux-rural coinages and surrealistic imagery are too opaque, but the mystifying moments can be pleasing, too. Witness the striking resolution of “God’s Small Song”: Amid otherworldly crescendos, Mr. Oldham pronounces, “In each I there is an apple / Buried there before the eye / And out of sockets come the branches / And from the branches dangle I.” It’s a strange, hallucinatory allegory of forbidden fruit, a twisted cycle of burial, birth, punishment. Add to Mr. Oldham’s list of accomplishments the invention of a new genre: gnostic gospel music.
WE’VE COME A LONG WAY SINCE SATIE TRIED to score sonic wallpaper (it didn’t work; audiences back then weren’t used to ignoring music). Eighty years later, Eno strung together some soothing tape loops for harried travelers at LaGuardia to pay no attention to—an easier sell in the 1970’s, but still pretty arty. Nowadays, Marissa and Julie sit down for dinner on The O.C. to the strains of carefully crafted instrumental rock, and our ears automatically tune to the feeble dialogue. Finally, success.
Ambient music is nothing if not adaptable. At its worst, it’s just innocuous; at its best, it’s strong but elusive like the memory of a long-gone sensation. The Album Leaf (the name of Jimmy LaValle’s solo instrumental project) makes quietly evocative music, and the latest record, Into the Blue Again (Sub Pop) continues on that same trajectory, with songs constructed out of simple but lushly layered Fender Rhodes piano melodies and atmospheric washes of guitar and synthesizer.
Mr. LaValle (who’s done stints with the bands Tristeza and the Black Heart Procession) may never again attain the austere, meditative beauty of “Another Day,” first heard on the split E.P. A Lifetime or More (2003) and then in a revised form with programmed percussion on In a Safe Place (2004). Using little more than a single insistent piano phrase—the muted, bell-like tone of the Rhodes ringing over placid drones—he somehow suggested late-afternoon sun filtering in through an open window.
“The Light,” the first track on Into the Blue Again, does a decent job of recapturing that feeling. A synthesizer murmurs and pulses rhythmically throughout, and—as usual—delicately interlocking Rhodes parts convey most of the melody, with violin and more keyboards stepping in to embellish the tune. Elsewhere, Mr. LaValle repeats his signature combination of legato soundscapes and jittery, fractured electronic beats that twitch their way into the foreground.
He’s good at wringing emotion out of the abstract building blocks of music. He’s less assured when supplementing a few tracks with listless vocals and fuzzy lyrics about difficult relationships. On one song about a romantic failure to communicate, he sings, “Writings on the wall—they’ll speak to me / Writings on the wall—they’ll sing to you.” The finest moments on Into the Blue Again scrub the words off the wall and let the wallpaper do the singing.