Review: Matt Sweeney & Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy bring out the best in each other on ‘Superwolves’
Old friends Matt Sweeney and Will Oldham (better known as Bonnie 'Prince' Billy) circled around each other for years, working together here and there before making 2005's collaborative Superwolf album which has grown in stature over the years. They really bring out the best in each other, even when working from a distance, with Bonnie sending lyrics -- sometimes on postcards -- and Matt thinking long and hard how to put them to music. Long indeed, as they've actively been working on Superwolf's follow-up for five years, in-between other projects. Superwolves is worth the wait, a gorgeous marriage of poignant prose, poetic playing, and Bonnie's powerful pipes. Also: popsicles.
Superwolves is a record to sink into and let wash over you. Mostly gentle and sparse, Matt's deceptively complex melodies and delicate finger-picking pairs perfectly with Oldham's ruminations on fatherhood, aging, love and death. Sometimes all of those themes are evident at once, like on the wonderful "Resist the Urge," where Bonnie tells his daughters that he will be there for them, even in the beyond. "I may not be here bodily," he sings, "But in the wind, I’m here," all set to a sprightly, spring-like melody and Matt's arpeggiated fretwork that reinforces the words of reassurance. That song's twisted flipside is "Good to My Girls," a sweet-sounding fictional character piece that at first seems to also be about a more stoic approach to fatherhood but is actually about a brothel madam and the ladies who work for her.
Placid as Superwolves is at times, there is a dark menace throughout, from the brooding, psychedelic swirl of opener "Make Worry for Me" ("I got monsters inside me that must be born") to final track "Not Fooling" that was written as closing music for what was supposed to be David Blaine's last-ever performance (he didn't end up retiring), but here plays like the ultimate kiss-off, Bonnie lighting a match to his world, leaving it behind with an "It's been real" as circling organ and guitars rise like flames.
Sweeney and Bonnie kick up some dust, too, especially when they let a few others into their pack. Matador-signed, Tuareg guitarist Mdou Moctar and his bandmate Ahmoudou Madassane add their spectral spiderwebs to three songs, including "Hall of Death," which is Superwolves at its most rambunctious, but also most moving, a rambling rocker about Oldham's mother who died last year and had been suffering from Alzheimer's -- "She’s been there forever / Forever to me / can’t even remember / Who she used to be."
In addition to the original songs, there are two wonderful covers on Superwolves: traditional song "I Am a Youth Inclined to Ramble," one of the other tracks that features Moctar that is also one of the vocal highlights on the album. (Bonnie really lets it fly.) The other is the Gosdin Brothers’ “There Must Be A Someone," a 1968 weepy "so lonesome I could cry" number that Bonnie and Matt present in the sparest form, that lets lines like "Must I live my whole life through not knowin' what to do / There must be someone I can turn to" hit you unadorned. Above all else Superwolves serves the song, dressing up where needed, but always presenting them in the manner most direct, even when the songs may take a few listens to sink in and blossom. It's an album that sneaks up on you -- let it play through and play often.