No one understands existential angst like Bonnie “Prince” Billy, aka Will Oldham. Who is he? What should he do with himself? In forging his identity, should he incorporate a little Bjork, or R. Kelly? Or both? While Billy may not know the answers, he seems hopeful that he can figure it out through covering other people’s songs. And yodeling.
In a world of unnecessary covers — the Goo Goo Dolls’ “Give a Little Bit” — and ironic covers — Ben Gibbard’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” — Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s are blessedly distinctive and earnest. Singing in his signature cracked voice, Oldham gives everything from Frank Sinatra to Danzig his moderate-tempo folk treatment. In his hands, motivational tunes and menacing metal anthems suddenly become the songs of a man suffering a long-term identity crisis.
[ydn-legacy-photo-inline id=”959″ ]
Even Oldham’s penchant for stage names points to the question of identity — “Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy” is the fifth name under which he has released an album. “Ask Forgiveness,” Oldham’s seventh album under this doppelganger, is his second cover album. And after a long history of resistance to being put under one name and one genre, the album questions the nature of identity both in the song choices and the way he reshapes them.
In taking songs from several genres and adapting them to fit into his own style, “Ask Forgiveness” becomes his manifesto on the meaninglessness of defining artists. With a little work, the tracks are rendered near unrecognizable, and not in a bad way — Oldham’s steady, acoustic style gives the disparate, sometimes-ridiculous songs cohesiveness and weight.
In structuring “Ask Forgiveness,” Oldham constructs a prototypical journey of self-discovery. With Newbury’s “I Came to Hear the Music,” he immediately establishes that music anchors him in a sea of ignorance and confusion. Next, after some philosophical wandering and anguish tempered by the upbeat, original track “I’m Loving the Street,” comes the acceptance of his existence, as undefined as it is.
In Merle Haggard’s country lament “The Way I Am,” Oldham brings in the sweet, clear female vocals found in many Americana and country songs, subtle fluctuations in volume and undirected, broken whistling to highlight his melancholia. At the chorus, he sings: “The way I am, don’t fit my shackles … So I just dream, keep on bein’ the way I am.” The song almost seamlessly flows into Sinatra’s “Cycles,” both in tempo and the continued female vocals.
This connectivity is both the album’s appeal and flaw. In order to make heavy metal and experimental-ambient music work together, Oldham has to give them a certain sameness. In the interest of creating a cohesive whole, his twist on the tracks — though unique — is uniform throughout.
And after trekking through hell and country towns, he discovers that he is “a swift wind,” closing the album with R. Kelly’s “World’s Greatest.” But one has the sense that in the 40-minute album, or Oldham’s 36-year-old life, nothing has been resolved.
Because really, who has ever been satisfied by the conclusion that he is a mountain, a tiger and a marching band?