Review: Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy – Is It The Sea?

Will Oldham, aka Bonnie “Prince” Billy, released his third live album last week, a collaboration with Scottish folk band Harem Scarem and renowned percussionist Alex Nielsen, recorded in Edinburgh in 2006. Oldham is without doubt one of the finest songwriters in contemporary music, although his prolific nature and the lack of promotional fanfare surrounding each release means it is easy to take his greatness for granted.

Is It the Sea? succeeds in much the same way as Greatest Palace Music and the live compilation Summer in the Southeast before it; by placing his compositions in new contexts that offer a different perspective on the original versions and the emotion of his words. His music has always drawn on traditional music and just as many folk songs have kept their relevance through reinvention over the centuries, his songs are at once a continuation of American roots traditions and the definite work of a irreverent and singular voice. This is after all the artist who covered R. Kelly’s “The World’s Greatest” with the same spirit and respect as Is It the Sea’s take on the traditional Scottish ballad “Molly Brawn” (with the arrangement credited to Oldham’s former collaborator Alasdair Roberts).

This release sees Oldham fully embrace the tradition of his collaborators and their Celtic heritage, his compositions expanded by flourishes of fiddle, banjo, flute, accordion and beautiful harmonies. The tone is immediately set with a rousing version of “Minor Place”, from I See a Darkness. The original is fragile, with vocals that sound like they might shatter at any moment and minimal instrumentation. Here, it bursts to life, joyously. Oldham seems spurred on by those accompanying him, with extended renditions of “My Home is the Sea” and “Cursed Sleep” vigorously played and intensely felt.

Throughout, the audience reaction to the band is rapturous and as Is It the Sea? draws to a close, it almost has you clamouring for an encore from your armchair. With Oldham’s form of late, one is hopefully never far away.

Is It the Sea? is available from Domino Records now.

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