REVIEW: Bonnie Prince Billy’s “I Made a Place” is Buoyant Instrumentation Dancing with Melancholy

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Anti-folk whimsical ascetic Bonnie Prince Billy returns with I Made a Place, his first full length release of original material since 2011’s Wolfroy Goes to Town.  Available November 15th from Drag City, Bonnie’s longtime home, I Made a Place builds on the foundation laid by Billy’s album teaser singles released this fall, “At the Back of the Pit” and “In Good Faith” where buoyant instrumentation dances with whimsically melancholy lyrics. Curiously, and true to BPB form, neither of these tracks appear on I Made a Place, in their place are 13 completely new tracks brimming with a dichotomatic mix of joy and sorrow, triumph and failure. In other words, I Made a Place is full of common Bonnie Prince Billy themes that are at once intimately personal yet universal to the human struggle twisted into contagious couplets.

“New Memory Box” picks up where the apoplectic “At the Back of the Pit” leaves off with clarinets, banjo, and Bonnie’s near-broken vocal – high lonesome and lost – he suggests, “you’ve got to knock this one out of the park, don’t let monsters creep out of the dark…take off your old clothes and show me the new…put your body on and find a new memory box.” On “Dream Awhile” Bonnie sings of peace and insight found in dreams, while “The Devil’s Throat” bounces on a pillow of fiddles and a sing song chorus that hides its depth in a childlike melody. “Look Backward on your Future, Look Forward to Your Past,” finds Bonnie contemplating our place in existence through the tale of Richard and the “ocean made of empty” he faced while he sang, “you’ll be what came before, you are what is to come…so look backwards on you future and look forward to your past.” In the span of just two songs Bonnie presents two sides of his chameleon nature as dark slow march of “I Made a Place” is offset by the apparent silliness of “Squid Eye.”

“Though half of life is gone for good, and we haven’t acted as we should, you feel it in your heart of wood that this is far from over,” sings Billy’s vulnerable voice on “This is Far From Over” alongside a quietly plucked acoustic guitar. “Mama Mama” takes a turn toward a sauntering west Texas two-step with the essential barroom piano and meandering bass. “The Glow Pt. 3” brings forth Billy’s love of the mysterious nature of the muse. “How worried are you when you don’t see the glow, when it stuffed deep and awfully in a junk draw below, that’s broken and locked and out of the way, how worried that it won’t come out ever?” he sings. A clarinet, open chorded electric jazz guitar, female vocal, and swelling cymbals push Bonnie’s questioning.

I Made a Place finishes with “Building a Fire” – a fitting end to this manifest about place and time and space. “You are building a fire, you making it bright,” he sings with a reserved confidence about love and connection with an intimate partner, but also acts as a manifesto of sorts for Billy. Of his long absence to record making prior to I Made a Place, Billy has said that he attempted to weather the storm of atomization of music and culture. Bonnie Prince Billy has long eschewed the artist in favor of the experience of the art. To this end, he has taken many names throughout the years other than Will Oldham (Palace, Palace Brothers, Palace Music, Bonnie Prince Billy, etc.) in an attempt to shift focus to the music and away from the musician. In doing so, the hope was a place for the experience of art would exists beyond the confines of human expectations and the artist’s ego. Instant gratification and easy answers do not have a place in BPB’s work; Billy is more interested in building fires than flipping a switch on a gas fire place or even worse turning on the yule log channel on the TV. I Made a Place is made to sit with, so take a break from the world, turn off your phone, put on this record, and enjoy a moment in the place that Bonnie Prince Billy made. https://www.dragcity.com/artists/will-oldham

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