The toughest part about being as weird as Will Oldham is keeping your wackiness from becoming predictable. Between the constant moniker shifts (Palace Songs/Brothers/Music to Bonnie “Prince” Billy), the cameos in Harmony Korine movies, a slew of concept albums, and collaborations with everyone from Björk to Chavez’s Matt Sweeney, Oldham is the quintessential record-collector’s songwriter in the age of iTunes. On one hand, Oldham’s quirkiness seems guaranteed to grate on all but his most devoted fans, but on the other, the latest, cheekiest Bonnie “Prince” Billy albums (Bonnie “Prince” Billy Sings Palace Greatest Music, Superwolf) have been the greatest successes of his career. So, where does The Brave and the Bold fit into the Will Oldham canon? An all-covers collaboration with post-rockers Tortoise, it’s really more of a Tortoise album than a Bonnie Billy one, which is a shame, because if anyone could elevate Tortoise’s occasionally-transcendent-but-more-often-than-not-lifeless elevator music it would be Oldham. There’s plenty of good mixtape fodder here, but it’s predictably hit or miss.
The grind through “Thunder Road” is meant to be the album’s centerpiece, as it’s the most widely revered song here. Springsteen’s classic gets the ironic treatment: an even wearier than usual Oldham pulls out of a town full of losers with all the self-confidence of a Woody Allen hero while Tortoise’s backing sounds like karaoke night at Brian Eno’s. As a curiosity, “Thunder Road” is cute, but even for enthusiasts it’s pretty inessential. Still, it’s clearly the track performed with the most care and affection, and while Tortoise’s distracting Epcot Center-style keyboards manage to be both overwrought and aloof, the uncertainty of Oldham’s creaky tenor is charming. It’s as though he told himself: you can’t approximate the Boss, so why even try? And, frankly, what could be more reassuring than listening to the self-deprecation of the truly talented?
The best tracks on The Brave and the Bold are the ones that sound the most natural. The rendition of Richard Thompson’s “Calvary Cross,” the song performed most faithfully on this record, is wonderful. Thompson’s original is a rich, startling love song, and Oldham’s impassioned delivery lives up to the challenge while Tortoise slyly tweaks the tune’s melody to great effect. Don Williams’s “Pancho” and Melanie’s “Some Say (I Got Devil)” are equally lovely; not surprisingly, Oldham’s voice is better suited to country and folk, and Tortoise’s antics are less distracting on these quieter numbers.
Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s live shows have featured exceptional readings of R. Kelly and Misfits songs, but the more adventurous picks on The Brave and the Bold sink more often than they soar: the synthesized sludge through Lungfish’s “Love Is Love” is really boring; the noisy interpretation of Devo’s “That’s Pep!”—not that great a song to begin with—is so beguilingly half-assed that it seems to have confused the players as much as it has baffled this listener; and the squawking version of “It’s Expected I’m Gone,” originally by California funk-punk masters the Minutemen, is better than decent, but is far too downtempo for a Minutemen song. But there are certainly delights and surprises to be found in The Brave and the Bold, such as the opening samba “Cravo E Canela” with Oldham’s convincing Portuguese vocals. Listening to the song in my car, I second-guessed whether or not it was actually Will Oldham singing. Such are the simple pleasures of being a rabid fan, I suppose, but since it’s unlikely such surprises will enchant the masses, The Brave and the Bold is ultimately neither: this is one esoteric album.