Where did Will Oldham’s woozy lullabies, foggy dirges and hillside hymns come from?
The songs he writes under the name Bonnie “Prince” Billy -- about kings, floozies, wolves, gin and flesh -- sound more disinterred than made. It is ancient music.
Oldham played on Feb. 7 in front of the Allen Room’s windowed wall in Manhattan’s Time Warner Center. He was there for Lincoln Center’s American Songbook series, scheduled between tributes this month to the “Chicago” duo John Kander and Fred Ebb, and “God Bless America” belter Kate Smith.
His music wasn’t made for Broadway or cabaret. Oldham sings as if he were raised in quarries and fields, not Tin Pan Alley (born in 1970, he grew up in Louisville, Kentucky).
Still, like the American Songbook’s best Cole Porter laments, Bonnie “Prince” Billy songs have their own undertow and tide. Last week some lulled, some lured, others dazzled, the best capsized.
Speaking about his work to a packed room in Brooklyn’s BookCourt bookstore the night before the concert, he said he felt kinship with George and Ira Gerwshin’s work.
“They are problems presented and problems solved,” Oldham said about the brothers’ songs. “You’ll never know exactly how or why the mystery arose, or exactly how or why it was solved.”
In the Allen Room, Oldham sang from 20 years of his albums, including the mesmerizing “I Called You Back” and the kindhearted “New Partner.”
Oldham’s references somersault and swerve, touching on the doomed country singer Patsy Cline, the R&B genius R. Kelly (whose “Trapped in the Closet” video Oldham appeared in), the Townes Van Zandt and Johnny Cash collaborator Jack Clement, and underappreciated soul singer Bobby Bland.
Even the bleakest Oldham songs have rhythm and humor. He introduced “The Risen Lord,” based on a D.H. Lawrence poem, with a story about heat stroke, Mexico, hallucinogens, spoiled mayonnaise, bathroom walls and “Lethal Weapon 4.”
Against the cityscape outside, the red light on a guitar amplifier seemed to glow at the end of a line of traffic lights shivering on Central Park South.
With clouds gathering for the weekend snow storm, Oldham’s “Death to Everyone” and “You Will Miss Me When I Burn” were unnerving.
These are songs that have slept alone in dark hollows and in the pines.
(Max Abelson is a reporter for Bloomberg News, where he writes about Wall Street. Any opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include Philip Boroff on theater, Farah Nayeri and Catherine Hickley on film.