There’s nothing like momentum for artists when trying to commandeer the attention of a swipe and refresh public; drop beneath the fold of people’s lives for even a few moments in the gut punch of now and there’s a chance that your fifteen minutes is over before it ever began.
Nobody, it would appear, has had that conversation with Matt Sweeney and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, AKA Will Oldham, who originally convened when the former was persuaded by the latter to perform live together at short notice in London during 2003.
Fueled by the success of this limited venture they came up with a full length collection of songs, which they called Superwolf, and then released it to rapturous critical acclaim two years later.
Given that as individuals they’re serial collaborators, the project going into cold storage wasn’t so much of a surprise, but that it’s taken sixteen years for the follow-up to arrive could, at best, be described as tardy.
Not that either of them will care about that; Oldham, a Louisville alumnus of the legendary Slint (he shot the picture on Spiderland’s iconic cover), has remained largely a cult concern (although it’s a big cult), whilst former Skunk and Chavez member Sweeney, amongst wearing many hats, provided material for the Red Dead Redemption 2 soundtrack.
As they tell it, about five years ago ideas began to germinate for Superwolves, a period of Oldham’s life in which as a civilian he also started a family, but his mother succumbed to Alzheimer’s.
In character neither are as straightforwardly muso as they might appear; God Is Waiting for instance is ostensibly another spotless entry to the Americana canon, but the protagonist’s message is uncompromising: ‘God can fuck herself/ And it does, hardcore’, while the parent of Good To My Girls is mired in doubt, motivated by the fear of an empty afterlife rather than the idea of giving love selflessly.
In front of both is opener Make Worry For Me, Sweeney’s rooty chords and a melancholic organ giving a predatory sounding Oldham the sort of darkly sweet persona he attacks with relish; the mid-section finds him intoning, ‘I’ve got monsters inside me/That must be born’, after which his partner in crime cranks out a devilish solo. As moments go, it’s one Nick Cave would be more than proud of.
Keeping their audience perpetually on the back foot, wondering where they’ll go next, soon becomes the default – there’s no map here.
On Hall Of Death, Ahmoudou Madassane of Mdou Moctar adds a Tuareg motif to a song that froths with the energy of a Saharan barn dance, while a brace of covers – the pastoral standard I Am A Youth Inclined To Ramble and a genuinely beautiful rendition of the Gosdin Brothers’ country ode There Must Be A Someone – underline the pair’s versatility and alchemical lead-into-gold talents.
Amongst the peaks are two of the most arresting songs they may ever have written, together or divided. On the achingly stark My Popsicle a glimpse of maybe either visits from history, ‘Times Square once was dark and wild/frightening to a guileless child’, while My Blue Suit is a love song so uncomplicated you may find yourself listening for the catch.
There’s nothing like momentum, and Matt Sweeney and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy certainly can’t be accused of having much by way of it. But Superwolves, even if the notion of a follow-up sixteen years later is a modern absurdity, has obvious connective tissue to its predecessor, and a mesmeric quality worth waiting for.
Yes, even this long.