Some friends share a secret language.
They set each other up for punchlines that can destroy a crowd of friends through a joint telepathy that can’t be fucked with from the outside. This shared language can be musical, and Matt Sweeney and Will Oldham are prime examples of two friends fluent in each other’s tuneful dialect.
Although they have led separate musical journeys since their 2005 album Superwolf, Matt Sweeney and Will Oldham — aka Bonnie “Prince” Billy — have developed a musical bond that has only become stronger as the two “wolves” ventured down their own paths.
The pair’s newest record Superwolves, released last month by Drag City, sees them build upon the stark, menacing folk of their debut with a deep well of new tricks.
The album announces itself like a burning barrel in a snow covered meadow with bluesy opener “Make Worry For Me.” The song builds, beginning with harmonizing vocals, a swirling organ and finishing with a fuzzed out guitar solo by Sweeney. It’s a perfect table setting for the album as the two jump from minimalist gothic folk tunes like “God is Waiting” and “Watch What Happens” to when they bring in some special outside guest musicians into their world for some full band arrangements.
Generally, when an artist brings in another band to collaborate on a selection of tracks rather than a whole album, it can feel disjointed. But when the “Superwolves” join forces with the Tuareg guitarist Mdou Moctor — and his bulldozer of a band — for “Hall of Death” and the album’s closer “Not Fooling,” it feels like a meeting of the minds between the duo’s gothic brand of folk and Moctar’s trance inducing rhythms. The former finds the nexus between the Gospel-tinged weirdo Americana that Oldham has been conjuring ever since Jurassic Park hit the silver screen with Moctor’s unabating fretwork and his band providing a propelling beat to create something all its own. “Turegrass”, perhaps? Whatever it is, it’s a bit of magic that needs to be bottled and sold.
Sweeney, a forever student of the six string, has built up an impressive collaborative portfolio over the last few decades. He played in Billy Corgan’s Zwan, on Rick Rubin’s sessions for the Johnny Cash American recordings, was a member of Endless Boogie, and is the long time host of Vice’s show, Guitar Moves. You can tell his love for the Tuareg players like Moctar and Tinariwen have expanded his playing over the years. On this album, his fingerpicking oozes with personality and consistently reaches dizzying heights.
Oldham is equally deserving of praise for his work on Superwolves. His voice and lyrics are both as strong, agile and triumphantly vulnerable as ever. That may seem like hyperbole when considering his rewarding body of work; But, this album finds him writing songs with a distinct perspective and singing them in awe-inspiring strength and precision. It’s hard to oversell. It takes a special kind of artist to turn a song called “My Popsicle” into a goosebump inducing experience.
On their first official co-billed album in over 15 years, Matt Sweeney and Bonnie “Prince” Billy have created a timeless work that, much like their debut, will only gain importance overtime. The two have crossed paths at a time when they are both operating at the height of their powers. It’s a joy to hear these two friends guiding and inspiring each other on these sessions. Superwolves will go down as one of the year’s best records, if not the one to beat.
Essentials: “Make Worry For Me,” “Hall of Death,” “There Must Be Someone” and “My Popsicle”
Prerequisites: Matt Sweeney & Bonnie Prince Billy’s Superwolf and Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s I See A Darkness