You’re on a Greyhound bus in the American mid-west, and only you and the driver can’t sleep.
As you stare out across an unpopulated expanse, Will Oldham’s sometime alter ego, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, settles into his chair and clears his throat.
With no sounds to drown out, bar the gentle hum of the bus’ engine, the acoustic guitar and softly delivered confessions of Oldham’s frontier period-piece, take your thoughts to a time before want exceeded need.
The sparsest of arrangements accompany his faltering voice, on permanent subjects such as vulnerability, partnership, truth. But in removing himself temporarily from the expectations of modernity, the demands of progress, your normally short attention span, for once is not so.
Closing your eyes, you imagine Oldham’s character reciting letters to an absent partner on his emotional battle between freedom and dependency, desire and need. On the one hand he admits that “constancy in love’s a joke/I’m not afraid of meeting new folk”, but he is unable to escape the fact that, “it’s a hard life/for a man with no wife.”
At first, you see little cause for sympathy in such apparent self-indulgence, but the lyrical potential of the album lies in the resulting uncertainty. When he asks in ‘Wolf Among Wolves‘, “why can’t I be loved as what I am/a wolf among wolves, and not as a man, among men”, any anger you feel at his duplicity is, if not partially assuaged by his unease at being seen as anything more than a predator, then forgiven by the fact that the song is so beautiful.
Admitting that he is a hard man to live with, unable to live without, but not prepared to commit to love, then there is the distinct possibility it will be his downfall. “Maybe you’ll kill me”, he says in Hard Life, “honey I don’t blame you/if I was in your place, maybe that’s what I would do.” His only solution then, is to ask to be let free - perhaps as much from himself, his ‘demons‘, as he puts it - as from a relationship he cannot walk away from, be it out of cowardice, or love.
As the album draws to a close, and the lights of the next town approach, you can’t say you necessarily feel closer to understanding the man, even if he’s been as honest as he can. But you wish him luck in finding whatever it is he is looking for, and feel glad he shared his hopes and fears with you, however contrary.