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In the Wild

 

Bonnie "Prince" Billy & Matt Sweeney: Superwolf

Drag City, 2005

Rating: 4.3

 

Posted: February 7, 2005

By Laurence Station

Fortunately, Matt Sweeney was up for a challenge. Will Oldham presented the ex-Chavez frontman and former Zwan guitarist with lyrics intended for Oldham's next Bonnie "Prince" Billy project, and charged him with creating music to accompany the words. Superwolf is the culmination of Oldham's challenge, a moody folk-rock collection that deals with everything from adultery to anthropomorphism. And, yes, this being a Will Oldham record, there's a certain knee-jerk inscrutability upon initial spins. But dedicated listeners are in for a treat, as is the case with just about everything the respected (if not commercially accessible) Palace Music mastermind has recorded. Give credit to Sweeney, then, for managing to meld seamlessly with Oldham's often spare, starkly countrified musical vision while infusing it with distinctive chord changes and dramatic tempo shifts. Superwolf just might convince those who've had trouble getting over the Bonnie "Prince" hump the encouragement to stick around and appreciate the quiet, intense majesty of Oldham's unordinary vocabulary.

It's a smart move to kick things off with "My Home is the Sea," one of the album's strongest, most melodically dramatic songs. Oldham's opening declaration that "I have often said that I would like to be dead in a shark's mouth" establishes a thematic link with not only the natural world's food-chain pecking order, but also a deeper association with the animal kingdom in general. Throughout the album, Oldham dreams of superwolves (the stirring, excellent "Lift Us Up") and encounters panther girls ("Rudy Foolish," featuring some lovely harmonizing with Sue Schofield), submits to being a "beast for thee" (on the same tender ballad), and ponders "singing as a seagull should" (the lovely, ruminative "Only Someone Running"). Oldham's anthropomorphisms aren't as obviously drawn as those in, say, Richard Adams' acclaimed imperiled-rabbits novel Watership Down. Rather, Oldman draws allusions between the power play between men and women and the less psychologically fussy dominance roles played out in the wild.

On "Blood Embrace," a nearly eight-minute, slow-boiling epic about a man coming to terms with losing his companion to another, Oldham effectively articulates the near murderous, bestial rage felt by someone losing possession of a lover. And it's that exploration of the irreconcilable desire to seize hold of someone physically -- yet being unable to ever wholly tame the whims of another's heart -- that vaults Superwolf to the upper tier of Oldham's numberless releases.

That Sweeney's arrangements equal Oldham's lyrics speaks volumes about the pair's creative synergy. Clearly, Sweeney's range on the multi-part "My Home is the Sea," and the lightning-crack flair exhibited on the arresting "Goat and Ram," are attention-grabbing and impressive. It's where Sweeney underplays things, as on the wistful "What Are You?," that the guitarist exhibits a shading and temperance that reveals just how elegantly his music is intertwined with Oldham's often cryptic expressions.

Superwolf is the sound of two artists on the same creative page, both bringing unique abilities to the table and elevating the other's talents as a result. In that respect, the avid fan of either can only hope that this isn't some one-off project, but rather the beginning of a long and fruitful musical relationship.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A classic
 4.0-4.9: Stellar work
 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
 2.0-2.9: Nothing special
 1.1-1.9: Pretty bad
 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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