Will Oldham has released a slew of one-off projects and re-workings of older material over the last three years, but his new Bonnie "Prince" Billy effort The Letting Go is his first "real" album since 2003's Master And Everyone. Recorded in Iceland with Björk's engineer Valgeir Sigurdsson and a few guest musicians (most notably, rhythm-minded folkie Jim White and deep-voiced mystic Dawn McCarthy), The Letting Go drifts on a rolling sea of acoustic strum, clacking percussion, lush strings, and Oldham croak. The pull of European cool against Oldham's usual rustic, heartfelt love poetry creates moments of sweet tension, as on "Cursed Sleep," where the skipping tempo and roughneck twang comes out like a fusion of Nick Drake and The Marshall Tucker Band.
The addition of McCarthy's distant wail and the thick string arrangements of Ryder McNair and Nico Muhly gives these songs a ceremonial feel, like a wedding in the countryside, or a midnight mass. Even the back-to-back ditties "Cold & Wet" and "Big Friday" sound precise and reverent, and when Oldham takes this approach to a cautionary ballad like "No Bad News"—which breaks at the end for a hopeful coda—the song becomes a benediction.
The Letting Go begins to fall apart toward the end, by design. "God's Small Song" sounds almost atonal, while "I Called You Back" resorts to abstract yearning, and the untitled final track is a complete shambles. As hinted at by the album's title, the gradual loss of control serves a larger theme of how it feels to be swallowed up by feelings of joy and ache. On one of the album's most affecting songs, "Lay And Love," electronically altered percussion buoys guitars so soft that they sound like they were blown, not plucked. Suddenly, total romantic abandon makes sense.