It's been three years since the last proper Bonnie "Prince" Billy release, but the once and future Will Oldham has been far from idle. Aside from releasing a confusing, countrified tribute to himself, a spacey covers album with Chicago electronica supremos Tortoise, a record of Skynyrd-derived rock in collaboration with guitarist Matt Sweeney and a jam-band-esque live CD, BPB also found time to revive his promising but dormant film-acting career by appearing in the lead role of the festival buzz-mongering Old Joy. In preparation for the release of The Letting Go, the bonnie "Prince" actually stretched his dramatic muscles by co-starring with confrontational anti-comic Neil Hamburger in a series of bizarre television commercials that climaxed with our hero lying dead on a hotel room floor with a copy of Veranda magazine stuffed down his throat and his pants bunched around his ankles. Whew!
In many ways, The Letting Go picks up where 2003's Master and Everyone left off, which is to say: morbid lyrical introspection in a deceptively gentle musical setting. From the opening lines "When the numbers get so high of the dead flying through the sky, O, I don't know why love comes to me," we're in familiar Bonnie territory, but where Master eschewed percussion nearly altogether and Greatest Palace Music larded on the cheeseball Nashville sheen with a trowel, The Letting Go, which was recorded in Iceland with longtime Bjrk collaborator Valgeir Sigurdsson at the sound board, manages to be both lush and minimalist. Oddball songwriter in his own right Jim White (whose exploration of the contemporary American South and its music can be witnessed for a fee at your local video store in the quasi-documentary Searching For The One-Eyed Jesus) plays drums with a nearly tribal air throughout, and the sound of the record can go from hushed folk ("God's Small Song") to overwrought baroque ("Cursed Sleep," the video for which manages to evoke Kaspar Hauser even while its principle character gallivants soberly in an E.T. mask). "Then the Letting Go" is particularly majestic, an almost magical-realist tale of childhood loss and later parental anxiety in a frostbitten setting that quite purposefully evokes more than it explains. Deeply weird but thoroughly listenable, The Letting Go is no more or less than the latest charred offering from a quixotic musical troublemaker who travels at his own leisurely pace, should you care to join him.