Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy & the Cairo Gang The Wonder Show of the World Review

Album. Released 2010.  

BBC Review

Sure to resonate deeply with the Will Oldham faithful.

Mike Diver 2010

The amazing productivity of Will Oldham should set alarm bells ringing, as surely the man’s quality control can’t be maintained when at least one new studio album per year has emerged since 2003’s Master and Everyone (counting 2007’s Wai Notes, alongside Dawn McCarthy). But Oldham’s Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy guise has served him well, with only 2009’s Beware the subject of a light critical lashing. And even then, he charmed as many as he cheesed off.

The Wonder Show of the World is the first album to see Oldham crediting the Cairo Gang, aka Emmett Kelly and Shahzad Ismaily, as headline performers, though the pair contributed to previous long-players The Letting Go (2006), Lie Down in the Light (2008) and last outing proper, Beware. It’s a move supported by the recordings here, rich as they are with evident examples of essential support from these previously bit-part players. Ismaily provides not only bass but also vocals; Kelly, meanwhile, is regularly dominant in the mix, his nimble guitar work gracefully complementing Oldham’s warmly familiar, cracked but colourful croon. As his syllables waver, Ismaily’s drift into focus, and this dynamic, subtle though it is, is superbly realised.

The spacious production lends The Wonder Show… an appealing as-live feeling, an intimacy that Oldham has often turned to his advantage in the past and does so again here. The sparse backing on Someone Coming Through allows him to turn in a moving performance buoyed by Ismaily’s lovely harmonies, and closer Kids is similarly arranged, only the lightest acoustic guitar to be heard beneath the vocal layers. The country vibes of Beware are refined on numbers like The Sounds Are Always Begging and the delectably delicate Merciless and Great. The latter is among the album’s most wonderfully lovelorn moments, which plays to Oldham’s lyrical strengths without any suggestion of schmaltz. His sentimentality may cloy with some, but few can criticise such unaffected delivery.

It’s been a long time since Oldham was a secret shared only by a relatively small crowd – his debut under the ‘Bonnie’ moniker, 1999’s I See a Darkness, was universally acclaimed and acted as an introduction for many admirers. But such a work rate inevitably stirs doubt, and followers have expectedly drifted away. They’re unlikely to be attracted back by this collection, but it’s sure to resonate deeply with a faithful that’s stood by their man since the days of Palace Brothers.  

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