The latest Bonnie “Prince” Billy album elevates The Cairo Gang’s main man, Emmett Kelly, from bit player to key collaborator, making prominent use of the avant-folkie’s voice and guitar as they wind easily around Will Oldham’s. The Wonder Show Of The World relies equally on Oldham’s in-the-moment spontaneity and the kind of ghostly after-the-fact orchestrations that Kelly brings to his own work. The album-opener, “Troublesome Houses,” sets the tone, coming out rhymeless and rhythmless: Its hook is little more than a two-note guitar signature, joined by little wisps of sound, as though friends wandered by, dug what Oldham and Kelly were doing, and were inspired to pick up their own instruments.
The intimacy of Wonder Show is common to Oldham’s work, whether he’s in high-lonesome mode with “Merciless And Great,” evoking a quiet church with “Someone Coming Through,” or getting a good call-and-response going with “Go Folks, Go.” The record is an achingly beautiful paean to companionship, whether musical or romantic, but it also embraces the mess of togetherness. Only Oldham could record a song as lovely as “That’s What Our Love Is”—with Kelly doing his best impression of David Crosby’s guitar over the bridge—and include a line hailing “the smell of your box on my mustache.” Nothing is ever clean in the Bonnie “Prince” Billy world.