Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy (Will Oldham) has been sending musical missives from the emotional lowlands of the alt-country scene for almost 30 years. Matt Sweeney has been a guitar player’s guitar hero for just as long, playing in Chavez and Billy Corgan’s supergroup Zwan, as well as producing a YouTube show called “Guitar Moves” where he interviews famous players about their influences and fretboard wizardry. The duo has teamed up again with Superwolves, their second album together and the follow-up to 2005 debut, Superwolf.
The duo has better chemistry than Walter White and Jesse Pinkman on “Breaking Bad.” The most recent collaboration, which began as almost everything in 2020 did—remotely—sets Oldham’s winsome lyrics against Sweeney’s guitar playing, which runs the gamut from understated to virtuosic. The result is a triumph of troubador-ism, a lilting and sad album that sparkles with seasoned musicianship.
Oldham’s lyrics occupy their own emotional register, glumly circling the morose like a vulture, but also occasionally beating their wings against the sun and feeling the rush of air as they swoop through the valley in celebration. Sweeney’s guitar playing makes a natural and dynamic companion, buttressing the downcast emotion with delicate guitar work that every so often explodes with flurries of notes that dash and dart like a flock of sparrows around Oldham’s singing.
“Make Worry For Me,” sets the album’s darkly somber and sedate mood. Mellow guitar playing creates a delicate groove, over which Oldham crafts a haunting melody with Sweeney providing beautiful harmonies at opportune moments. The song feels like sitting back in a comfortable chair after a big bong hit and watching the windows turn dark with the dusk. “Good To My Girls” sure seems like a song sung from a pimp to his employees, but for all we know, Oldham is singing about chickens or something. Over fragile guitar, Oldham sings, “I take them to the movies/ I put food in their openings/ I sew the holes in their lives shut/ And temper and hoping/ What can I say?/ I didn’t ask/ To own their days and worth/ I’m good to them/ And thereby earn/ My share of life and earth.”
Some of the songs sound more like typical Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy fare. “God Is Waiting” features Sweeney’s elegant fingerpicking and Oldham’s lyrics about leaving home or breaking up, which include the choice lyrical snippet, “God can fuck herself.” On “Shorty’s Ark,” Oldham lists a series of animals—including “giant squid” and “moles in the ground”—before singing, “They’ll remind us of eternity/ So they won’t have to die/ They fill our dreams with savage schemes/ We’ll join them by and by.” The song captures Oldham’s talent for blending wide-eyed, childlike naivety with grumpy, geriatric kvetching.
Sweeney’s guitar playing swirls with a vintage phaser sound on “Hall of Death” as Oldham offers grizzled enthusiasm with a hint of a southern drawl. On the Paul Brady folk standard “I Am A Youth Inclined To Ramble,” Sweeney’s playing evolves from a delicate underpinning of the verse to face-melting shredding with additional guitarists Mdou Moctar and Ahmoudou Madassane over the course of the epic six-minute track.
Another standout track, “My Popsicle,” manages to be sweet and weird in equal measure. “We crawled towards a warmth last night/ Towards a wild and endless night/ My pop, my popsicle, my popsicle, my popsicle/ Made by your mom and me,” Oldham sings. “There Must Be Someone” feels like a countrified version of R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts.” On “You Can Regret What You Have Done,” Oldham offers his response to The Butthole Surfers’ line (“It’s better to regret something you have done, than to regret something you haven’t done”). “You can regret what you have done/ What you’ve not done can seem more fun/ But what you’ve done can’t be undone,” he offers up.
Superwolves presents a musical and lyrical sophistication that transcends genre, staking out territory along our emotional frontier. Sweeney and Oldham have spent decades honing their craft. The duo’s ability to capture authentic emotion in the studio is inspiring, but it might also make you a little sad— in just the right way.