I consider myself a relatively avid fan of Will Oldham's, but admirer I am, I still have a decent heap of trouble keeping up with all of his releases. That said, I can't fault the man for being prolific, especially when each album he drops (under whatever name or with whomever) is worth listening to. The Wonder Show of The World, created with longtime collaborator Emmett Kelly (a.k.a. The Cairo Gang), is another great collection of modern folk music, as beautiful as it is juvenile, to be added to Mr. Oldham's ever-growing (and ever-amazing) canon.
What strikes me about The Wonder Show... is that beauty that was just mentioned. While Oldham's discography isn't short on tender and beautiful moments, few to none of his prior albums are as quietly pretty as this one is. The music here is so stark, so pulled back. Often the mix is silent as the listener is left to wait eagerly for the next note or lyric. It's really quite interesting and, well, gorgeous--feats not often achieved in these modern times; most of the music clouding the blogs and magazines these days favors style (retro synths, ambiguous metaphors) over substance, over honesty and beauty. Some may gripe that there are no game-changing, unique moments on this album from a musical standpoint--and that's kind of true. And the sonic sameness that pervades this album (and many other Oldham releases) can indeed grow tiresome. And while The Wonder Show... is not Oldham's most revolutionary, heartbreaking, or thought-provoking album, its thoughtfulness still makes it more worthwhile than that umpteenth glo-fi EP by that band with the semi-clever name.
My chief complaint--not the lack of musical originality--is that, although The Wonder Show a thoroughly easy and enjoyable listen (my mom even likes it a lot), I sometimes enjoy my Oldham with some grit and some dirt and some darkness--qualities that are not in short supply on classics like Viva Last Blues and I See A Darkness.
All that said, many of the lyrics insure that Wonder Show isn't just a nice, tender walk in the park. Oldham is as dirty as ever--probably dirtier, actually. On the sublime "That's What Our Love Is", my favorite track on the album, Oldham brightens the stunningly beautiful climax of the song with a line about eating out his special lady. It's part touching, part disgusting, and part hilarious. Elsewhere on the album, Oldham talks about his boners and visiting prostitutes, etc. These innuendos, some not so subtle, flow out of Oldham's mouth so naturally and poetically, though, that you can't really fault him or call him immature. When he's "too hard to be scared", you are, too. His senses of reality and mankind are more or less unparalleled among modern songwriters. (Just try not to actually picture him lying around with a boner. Ew.)
Will Oldham's a beast, plain and simple. I haven't gotten around to hearing all of his releases quite yet, but I've heard the bulk of them, and they're all good. I'm not sure how he's able to put out LP after LP of well-written, interesting music, and I don't really care. As long as he keeps at it, I'll keep listening.
7 slices (out of 8)