“Love comes to me,” Will Oldham sings on the first track of “The Letting Go.” “It’s my hands, my heart, my lips — and that is all.” And when Oldham says “heart,” it sounds literal. He doesn’t mean the Valentine shape, or some abstract locus of emotion. He means the meaty knot of muscle in his chest. The body is all, as far as this record is concerned. Sure, there are feelings and visions and memories to be dealt with, but none of it is quite as real or immediate as the corporeal experience of being human. This sensibility plays out both lyrically and musically on “The Letting Go,” an album with the pulse and churn of a body.
Oldham sings about the physical — “unreeling” eyeballs and feelings in the backs of knees — and that’s what the listener experiences. There’s a reason this album sounds better through headphones than it does over any speakers. He’s whispering, humming, his guitar vibrating against your inner ear. The first track, “Love Comes to Me,” may open with a swoon of strings, but they quickly fall away, leaving behind mostly spare arrangements of vocals and guitar. The combination of elemental music and evocative words creates songs with a potent sense of physicality. The sum effect, while sometimes used to underscore the sexual, often burrows even deeper into more cryptic, more intense bodily imagery: “I dreamed of her inside of me,” Oldham wails at one point. And later, at the close of “Then the Letting Go” — “I used her skin as my skin to go out in the snow.”
Recorded in Reykjavik, “The Letting Go” is Oldham’s first solo album of new material in three years. Prior to 1999’s “I See A Darkness,” the Louisville native performed as “Palace,” “Palace Music,” “Palace Brothers” and, yes, “Will Oldham.” Bonnie “Prince” Billy seems to have taken, though: “The Letting Go” is his eighth album under this name.
As always, Oldham’s voice is, in its very fragility, a force to be reckoned with. It demands attention, forcing you to lean in, listen closer. It’s a voice that sounds almost internal, like you’re hearing it while it’s still inside his chest — there’s barely enough air to push it out into the world, and it cracks into a warble at the slightest resistance. The combination of hushed male vocals and rippling guitar sometimes calls to mind Nick Drake, albeit without Drake’s tendency toward wispy ethereality.
At other times — particularly on the track “Cursed Sleep” — it’s tempting to draw comparisons to Jeff Buckley and the heartbreak-laced swagger of “Grace.” The analogy seems odd: Oldham certainly makes no pretense of having Buckley’s delicately controlled vocal range. But one of the most distinctive features of “The Letting Go” is the near-constant presence of Faun Fables singer Dawn McCarthy, whose voice drifts above Oldham’s in a spectral sing-along. Somehow, the synthesis of Oldham’s murmur and McCarthy’s throaty alto yields that sense of keening, Buckley-esque drama. McCarthy’s vocals contribute a haunting counterpoint to the album’s otherwise earthy texture.
In the end, the most remarkable thing about the album is its feeling of familiarity — a feeling that makes “The Letting Go” immediately accessible, but also oddly ephemeral. It’s a record that you feel like you’re remembering as soon as you hear it, and that you forget as soon as it’s over; it gets under your skin only to be absorbed and disappear, and perhaps this is the natural result of creating something so focused on the corporeal. Just as organs and limbs are ultimately anonymous, so too is “The Letting Go.” Whether Will Oldham or Bonnie “Prince” Billy — perhaps in this case the distancing effect of a pseudonym serves to underscore rather than distract — the artist has produced something intimate and yet strangely impersonal. “The Letting Go” is easily embraced and just as easily let go.