Despite the foreboding title and bleak black and white cover art — a curious nod to the first Danzig album — Bonnie "Prince" Billy's Beware is an inviting entry into Will Oldham's haunting repertoire.
But a closer look reveals the layers of dark imagery hiding inside some of Oldham's most gorgeous, complex songs about the nature of love, happiness and existential rumination. Each song serves a cautionary tale, arriving as a Trojan horse that charms with a comfortable glow before opening up to expose its damaged character. The bucolic, acoustic strum and declaration — "I want to be your only friend" — that opens the album on "Beware Your Only Friend" suggests something more destructive than the naïve affections evoked by Oldham's words and sweet voice.
That kind of lyrical, double-edged sword is Oldham's strength. Over the last two decades, he's grown from the elusive Kentucky storyteller situated behind the primitive indie-folk strum of Palace Brothers into the bearded, art-country icon who wraps bone-chilling moods and metaphors in a web of poetry.
With Beware, he reaches the apex of his musical craft. Devoid of a standout single, like "Cursed Sleep" from his '06 album The Letting Go, Beware's "You Don't Love Me" comes close — with its balance of weeping and waltzing melodies, horns and handclaps. The tangle of flute, strings, minor keys and wistful singing that forms the backbone of "Afraid Ain't Me" is a high point as well.
But these songs are peaks amid the deep, dark valleys of "Death Final" and "Heart's Arms." The alternating contrast of depression and elation, mixed with a sense of finality in the musical landscape, will make Beware a classic staple of Oldham's catalog.