We’ve a lot to thank John Peel for. When he died I remember feeling the shock as if he were a family member almost, rather than a radio host I had never met. But the legacy he left, especially in terms of the mountains of sessions recorded as part of his show, remains a resource that continues to be mined some 11 after his untimely passing. Will Oldham, aka Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy is the latest to raid three of his six sessions recorded for the programme for his latest release, Pond Scum.
Working backwards chronologically, the sessions unveil stripped back and peeled away versions of a dozen songs, Oldham performing alone save for the first four which feature David Heumann. As such, with the (live) aspect of the session, so Oldhams voice cracks and creaks with emotion even more on record, and some of the songs are given more space and time. Added to that the subject matter – often self deprecating, sad, lonely, angry and unloved, and it could be a difficult listen. But Oldham never lets things become morose, even when songs – Death to everyone being a prime example are stripped to the bare bones and slowed to a heartbreak pace, it just seems to leave just enough room to wallow in the beauty of his songwriting.
There’s a couple of covers thrown in to the mix, with a version of Prince’s The Cross, given a Bob Dylan like reading, with urgent guitars as Oldham himself adopting a convincing Protest Song performance, and the traditional ‘When Thy Song Flows Through Me’ which is frankly gorgeous, the warm guitar and vocal harmonies wrapping it up in this comfort blanket of sound that is totally convincing and comfortable. Added to that is the rather beautiful and previously unreleased Beezle, a soft, yearning song with Oldhams voice at its prodding, coaxing best.
Elsewhere there are moments where the heartbreak is so close you can almost touch it, the rawness of Jolly One (2-15) and the more matter of fact storytelling of Stable Will being of particular note. There’s something deeply gratifying about listening to the album, the songs set free from the temptations of the studio and time to craft Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s arrangements, it relies almost purely on the quality of the songs. And that has been a domain where Will Oldham has been almost unparalleled fpr quite a while.