Aptly named Beware, Will Oldham's subtle and mysterious new album is not what it initially seems. Depths of strange light and dark meaning emerge with repeated listening. The cover presents a skull visage against sinister black, a pale orb of the title's warning hovering above; on the back a surging planetary volcano. The palindromic catalog number, DC666CD, suggests malignancy. What is he the "prince" of, darkness?
Or light? The upbeat back-porch country of "Beware Your Only Friend" establishes the lightest mood of Oldham's career. Recorded with muted, mostly acoustic instrumentation, soft percussion, violin, pedal steel and a host of guest instrumentalists, this album deceives with warm sunshine even as longing for love and home cause convoluted pain. Your only friend he may be, but a line like "Watch out for these silent thoughts/That's where the seed of soul-sucking grows" stands as warning. Beneath the playful lilt of the tune, "beware of me" and "each who comes around you takes some of your light" belie deep suspicion.
But Oldham moves toward uplift rather than fright. Turning from the old "nobody knows the trouble I've seen," he substitutes "everyone" -- "that's the thing about trouble you can love." Though the refrain, "you can't hurt me now," suggests the distance and separation pervasive on the record, he knows that in the shared "belly laugh" is a human commonality that is "God's plan," a potential that is "destiny."
As he pulls "ridge to ridge" to "make wondrous bridge" for us, we have entered another realm. "I take this load on/It is my life's work/To bring you into the light/Out of the darkness" verges on the messianic. Massed chorus and swelling saxophone reach Dark Side Floyd proportions, salvation being found in music and wild, unbounded feeling: "This song becomes/The melody of you/As you're the song of me."
From innocence to experience -- "God bless us as we cross/From greensides into darker" -- he moves in a "pit of bodies," humanity itself, and is "loved by all." "Our beauties try to crush us," but the overwhelming is ameliorated by love, humor and play. Change brings loss, freedom and individuality call: "It was bound to happen/From when you first knew you/And pulled apart with will/ From those around you."
"If you listen to me you are lost," says the trickster patron saint of sad longing, but the heart may find "a purpose" that holds it, beyond "childish things," and leads to illumination. Concluding, he's in a Luciferian tone: "Trust to me your little ones/Slow and sweet I teach." Through country and over ridges wily Billy leads us to the secret, the end of humanity that tries to "block my greatest moments." Purified with "scalding tears," he stands "Cold and clear" before a final black sky Mystery. A hoedown this is not. "Afraid ain't me," he says, in this marriage of heaven and hell in the human heart.