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Will Oldham on Bonnie “Prince” Billy

Will Oldham on Bonnie "Prince" Billy
Edited by Alan Licht
Faber & Faber, 400pp, £15.99

Oh, how I'd love to be able to put my trust in Will Oldham - to adore his songs as I am beginning to suspect they deserve to be adored. But there's something that forces me to hesitate. It may be his beyond-cool hyper-uncoolness, which has him shambling around looking like Good Old Uncle Perve. Perhaps, being honest, it's that he hasn't yet died.

"Horses" was the first song by Oldham I heard. Amazing, because it's so amazingly raw, the shambolic sound reminded me (though I knew this was lame) of Neil Young's "Don't Be Denied" on Time Fades Away - part of Young's heroin-world "ditch" trilogy. Oldham's voice sounded like someone fixin' to die and dyin' to fix. Working backwards, I found that Oldham's first album was called There Is No One What Will Take Care of You - and that seemed to be the case. Was this an LP or a field recording of monstrous fuck-ups?

Will Oldham on Bonnie "Prince" Billy is, among other things, an act of disenchantment – the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain. Of There Is No One . . . he says: "I think the vocal qualities were affected by the wood-burning stove that we used to heat the room and the smoke. It made the air a little harsh." So much for my first imaginings of Royal Trux levels of out-of-itness or John Cale levels of despair.

This book, constructed of interviews with the guitarist Alan Licht, is chronological but digressive. About 40 pages in, it becomes clear - thank God - that Oldham is not merely putting everybody on but is set fair to talk wittily, revealingly and movingly. His observations are often brilliant. I've been asked many times whether I enjoy reading my own writing and have always wanted to figure out how to say what Oldham says here (of listening to his own recordings): "It's essentially like trying to tickle yourself."

Oldham also encapsulates exactly how he comes across. Asked to define a hero, he says: "People who do things that are inspiring and somehow straddle the line between being extremely generous and self-serving . . ." Of the difference between himself and Bonnie "Prince" Billy, Oldham is also clearer than he's been elsewhere: "Will Oldham has a private life and Bonnie 'Prince' Billy doesn't."

The truth seems to be something like this - writing songs, whatever else it might be, is not intellectually challenging. If you're a singer with a decently functioning brain of any sort, you soon start looking for some way to add levels to the wholeheartedness. This leads to artists creating alter egos - and not just Mojo-loved artists such as Dylan, Bowie and Prince. There's Beyoncé's Sasha Fierce, Mariah Carey's Mimi and Garth Brooks's Chris Gaines. Being serious and also mischievous: I would argue this (for American performers) goes back to and through Al Jolson and is a derivation of blackface. The voice on "Mammy" is and is not Jolson's, in exactly the same way as the voice on "I See a Darkness" is and is not Oldham's.

A very few artists do something else - not adopt a persona but sing in a voice distanced from their own. Mainly, I'm thinking of Frank Zappa - who made a career out of putting inverted commas around everything he did. And in trying to think about why I don't trust Oldham, it's Zappa I keep coming back to. In just about everything, Oldham stacks up as anti-Zappa. Where Zappa is virtuosic, self-protecting, elitist, Oldham is (or puts himself across as being) rudimentary, naked, open. But, for all that, there's still a Zappa-esque core to Oldham - and it's this that puts me off.

Zappa might easily have said this, and got into lots of trouble for saying it:

Making records is commerce, and it's about fooling yourself . . . fooling the audience into not thinking about it and accepting it. It's like when you walk down the street and say, "Look at that girl's ass, it's so great." You're ignoring also the fact that she farts shit out of that ass. It's the same kind of thing.

The question this seems to leave behind is whether, in assuming the identity of Bonnie "Prince" Billy, Oldham has successfully cut himself a new arsehole - and therefore delegated his defecation. Or whether it's just samo, samo. This book contains dozens of amusing answers to this, very few of which are in agreement.

Toby Litt's most recent novel is "King Death" (Penguin, £8.99)

This article first appeared in the 02 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, France is my enemy