Will Oldham: Joya

Will Oldham
Drag City

ONE PART DISHEVELED New Dylan, one part indie Everyman, Will Oldham is perhaps the only contemporary songwriter who's able to balance his search for a mythic persona with a staunch adherence to punk-rock idealism. Under the Palace moniker, he recorded prolifically without repeating himself, changing collaborators and stylistic approaches until he hit the jackpot with 1995's Viva Lost Blues. Bolstered by tight songwriting, astounding lyrics, and Steve Albini's vivid production, it stands as Oldham's tour de force--a record powerful enough to muzzle detractors who bemoaned both his "elliptical" behavior and his inauthentic rich-kid upbringing. Always the foot shooter, our hero opted not to issue review copies of his masterwork or conduct interviews to support its release. Instead, retiring the Palace moniker altogether, he released and promoted the somber, utterly commercial, drum machine-anchored Arise Therefore. Such baffling decisions might well instill pride in his obvious spiritual forefather, Bob Dylan--himself no stranger to issues of authenticity and audience downsizing.

Musically speaking, Oldham and Dylan share a knack for inhabiting songs, digging into their stories like actors, and settling into roles. (It's no coincidence that both aura-mongers have dabbled in acting.) But where Dylan relies on poetic prowess, Oldham's power rests in his domineering, achy-shaky voice. The four-piece band on his new Joya may supply Oldham's heftiest backdrop since Viva, but the spotlight rarely strays from the star's pipes: He knows the power of his full-on croak and applies it sparingly. On the opener, "O Let it Be," a thunderous piano and fierce guitar kick off the record in driving fashion, then instantly draw back to make room for the singer--who enters calmly, muttering against his electric guitar on the verses, and growing increasingly agitated as he wrangles with the choruses. And then he explodes.

Of course, these are familiar Oldham tricks, and by the time he winds down the album with the campfire crawler "Idea and Deed," I can't help feeling a little cheated. Folksy tearjerkers like "Open Your Heart" and "Apocalypse No!" are indeed lovely, but they come uncomfortably close to easy-listening fodder--especially when compared to the rousing wails of Viva Lost Blues and the sparse dreariness of Arise Therefore. I'd prefer to hear the musician chase these extremes, or else pursue his professed interest in electronics. Rather, as the first album to mimic his previous work, Joya is Oldham's Ill Communication--which makes for a thrilling listen even if it suggests a dubious future. (Jay Rottenberg)

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