Album Of The Week

Album Of The Week: Matt Sweeney & Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy Superwolves

Drag City
Drag City

You couldn’t fit the Superwolf CD anywhere. Drag City sold Superwolf, the 2005 collaborative album from old buddies Will Oldham and Matt Sweeney, in a large, flat cardboard envelope thing — too big for a CD shelf, too small for a bookshelf, with a weird little cloth thing on the inside to hold the compact disc. In the days when music was still largely collected on physical items, when people would obsessively organize and catalog their collections of those physical items, Superwolf was an anomaly that resisted all attempts to file it. You could do one of two things with Superwolf. You could bury it at the bottom of a box of other things, or you could leave it on top of all your stuff, where you would see it all the time and where you would probably decide to put it on constantly. I chose the latter.

Superwolf was a work of great fascination. Will Oldham was, and is, a playfully mysterious singer-songwriter, leaning toward country or folk but never towards the country-folk pastiche that became known as Americana. Sweeney was, and is, an elliptical guitar wizard who, pre-Superwolf, had led a couple of skronky indie rock bands and who had become a kind of for-hire gunslinger. (A couple of years before I bought that Superwolf CD, I’d seen Sweeney playing his guitar in an alt-rock radio station’s hockey-arena Christmas show; at the time, he was a utility player in Billy Corgan’s ill-fated post-Pumpkins band Zwan. Superwolf was a left turn, to say the least.) Together, Oldham and Sweeney played deep, weird, ragged classic-rock reveries that soothed and charmed and flummoxed. You could get lost in those songs, and I did, often. They felt like a series of mysteries to be unraveled. I was pleasantly shocked, for instance, when I watched the gnarly 1977 revenge movie Rolling Thunder and learned that that’s where Sweeney and Oldham got the clip of dialogue from the middle of the eight-minute zone-out “Blood Embrace” in which a man stoically accepts his wife’s infidelity.

Superwolf was a tingly, fascinating little masterwork, and it grabbed me in ways that no other work from Oldham or Sweeney had done. But Oldham and Sweeney didn’t treat the album as if it was a major work. They did no press. They barely toured, and when they did, it was half-secret. The one time I saw them play together, for instance, was at a free and unadvertised show at the upstairs bar of my local indie rock club, a space that never hosted live music at the time. Oldham and Sweeney played on the floor, and we sat at tables to watch them, like we were at the Copacabana. Over the next 16 years, Oldham and Sweeney made a whole lot of music. Every once in a while, they even made music together. They remained close friends. But Superwolf follow-up never came. I stopped hoping for it to show up. And now, here it is.

Superwolf is the kind of album that generates its own legend, that become a personal fixation for a dedicated few. It’s the kind of album that discourages the idea of a follow-up. And yet Superwolves, the second album from Matt Sweeney and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, is every bit the equal of its predecessor. It’s got the same astral feeling of discovery, the same sense of rapturous melody, and the same loose and spectral quality. Once again, Will Oldham wrote the lyrics, and then he sent them to Matt Sweeney to render as music. The two artists have been working on Superwolves, on and off, for nearly five years, though they finished the album at a sprint during the pandemic. Together, they’ve pierced their way into the same instinctive interplay that had preserved so beautifully on their first album together.

At this point, Matt Sweeney’s guitar heroism is an acknowledged fact; he’s an in-demand session monster with his name on records from Neil Diamond and Adele and Run The Jewels. On Superwolves, he weaves long and fluid lines. His work is tender and meditative and sometime blazingly hot, and he puts his friend Will Oldham’s voice to work. Singing Sweeney’s melodies, Oldham pushes his soft and grainy voice high into his upper register, letting it soar casually. Sometimes, he sounds lost and fragile. Sometimes, he sounds upright and strong; on “There Must Be Someone,” Oldham almost sounds like Waylon Jennings. These songs feel like conversations, full of callbacks and inside jokes both musical and lyrical. Other musicians show up to help out: the Nashville studio engineer David Ferguson, the veteran country keyboardist Mike Rojas, the Gang Gang Dance drummer Ryan Sawyer. Tuareg guitar king Mdou Moctar and his band play on three songs, adding a welcome wiggy wildness. And yet Superwolves still feels enclosed and private — two people speaking to each other through the music that they’re making.

As always, Oldham’s lyrics resist easy interpretation. On “Good To My Girls,” for instance, Oldham inhabits the character of a tough and hardbitten madame who’s fiercely protective of the sex workers in her employ: “I chop down trees and spit in faces and laugh when you are sad/ Your happiness means almost less than all that’s in the world/ My existence is OK, I guess/ Because I am good to my girls.” On “Shorty’s Ark,” he’s Noah, rounding up animals two by two and taking sheer delight in calling out their names: “Giant squids and honey bears, moles in the ground/ Killer whales, pocket wolves, rhinoceros and hound!” For opening track “Make Worry For Me,” Oldham is a dangerous man on his way into town, letting you know not to fuck with him: “I got monsters inside me that must be born/ Let me shut up my mouth now and blow this horn.” Naturally, that line conjures a molten Matt Sweeney guitar solo.

On “God Is Waiting,” Oldham contemplates a woman who stops and lingers on her way to death, and he ends it with what might be the most quotable line he’s ever written: “God can fuck Herself, and does, hardcore.” Oldham and Sweeney stretch out the last syllable of the word “hardcore,” turning it into a long note of high-lonesome harmony. They sound like Buck Owens and Don Rich, or like Don Henley and Glenn Frey.

Perverse as they can be, Oldham’s lyrics are not puzzles. They are attempts to meditate on loss, to grapple with the inevitable. When Oldham wrote those lyrics, he was reeling from the death of his mother, who’d been suffering from Alzheimer’s for years and who is presumably the woman from “God Is Waiting.” As Oldham told my colleague Chris DeVille, “If the lyrics lean towards the momentous, I came by it honestly.” Death hangs all over Superwolves. It’s a veil and a promise and a wall, a comfort and a curse. In the version of the old traditional “I Am A Youth Inclined To Ramble,” death might be some new foreign land. On “My Body Is My Own,” death is an imminent destination: “I’m saving for my next incarnation/ Boxes, bags, and bowls of breath/ Bales of joy and raw elation to break me through this wall of death.”

There is not one bad song on Superwolves. Every track hits me on a raw, soothing gut level, and some new moment hits me every time I play the album. But “Resist The Urge” is the one that truly fucks me up. “Resist The Urge” is a short and beautiful song, a gentle folk lullaby, and it’s all about reassurance. If I understand “Resist The Urge” right, Oldham sings the song as a father preparing his children for his own death: “I’m holding you and singing strong and constant in your ear/ I may not be here bodily, but in the wind, I’m here.” Oldham sings, “I didn’t die,” and Sweeney joins in behind him on soft harmony, turning that affirmation into something triumphant.

My father is dying. Parkinson’s disease, and the dementia that comes along with it, have taken him away to a remote and mysterious place. I haven’t seen my father in more than a year, and the next time I see him, he might not see me. I’ve watched his body curl in on itself a little bit more every time I see him on a FaceTime screen. I’m starting to wrap my mind around the idea that he and I will never have a real conversation again. In this time, “Resist The Urge” has been a great, sad comfort to me. I imagine it always will be. I can’t file “Resist The Urge” away. It’s too big. It won’t fit anywhere.

Superwolves is out 4/30 digitally and 6/18 physically on Drag City. Read our feature on Oldham and Sweeney here.

Other albums of note out this week:

• Gojira’s Fortitude.
• Dawn Richard’s Second Line.
• Shelley FKA DRAM’s self-titled album.
• Origami Angel’s Gami Gang.
• Dropkick Murphys’ Turn Up That Dial.
• Ashley Monroe’s Rosegold.
• Marianne Faithful’s She Walks In Beauty.
• Teenage Fanclub’s Endless Arcade.
• Cadence Weapon’s Parallel World.
• Leon Vynehall’s Rare, Forever.
• Crumb’s Ice Melt.
• Manchester Orchestra’s The Million Masks Of God.
• Julia Michaels’ Not In Chronological Order.
• Guided By Voices’ Earth Man Blues.
• Bowerbirds’ becalmyounglovers.
• Tony Allen’s There Is No End.
• Ya Tseen’s Indian Yard.
* Paul Jacobs’ Pink Dogs On The Green Grass.
• Royal Blood’s Typhoons.
• Juan Wauters’ Real Life Situations.
• Girl In Red’s If I Could Make It Go Quiet.
• Rosie Tucker’s Sucker Supreme.
• Ben Seretan’s Cicada Waves.
• Flying Lotus’ Yasuke score.
• The Alchemist’s This Thing Of Ours EP.
• Enumclaw’s Jimbo Demo EP.

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