There is an air of mystery to Will Oldham, and it wafts through nearly everything he does as an artist, particularly as Bonnie “Prince” Billy. But in addition to that mystery, with I Made a Place, his first album of originals as Bonnie “Prince” Billy in several years, there is so much love. Utilizing folk music not only to hold a harsh mirror up to society, but also as a soothing salve that reminds us of all the beauty still to behold in the world, I Made a Place is a soft place to land.
Describing the record, Oldham notes that it is “broken into sides,” the first half happy and bright, the second introspective and raw. But really the entirety of I Made a Place will make you feel happy when you listen to it. It is joyous even in its quieter moments, hopeful even when it feels a little dark. Of course, there are literal upbeat numbers, like album opener “New Memory Box,” a knee-slapper about overcoming the darkness and simplifying our lives to start anew. This idea of rebuilding comes up again and again on I Made a Place. On “This Is Far from Over,” he seems to be singing to his young child, teaching her optimism and resiliency, even as the world is falling apart around her. As climes grow warmer and oceans rise, he tells her to remember she already has all she needs to survive. Sure, it’s bleak, but it’s inevitable, so have your wits about you and embrace the unknown. “Don’t worry if all life is gone / The rocks and sea will still roll on / And new wild creatures will be born,” he sings, with vocal stylings that feel like an old Irish folktale.
“I can still see the light of day,” he sings on “The Glow, Part 3,” accompanied by Joan Shelley’s magnificent harmonies. “I’m enthralled and want to begin / Break open my heart, let new flowers in.” Back or front half of the album, there is a warm golden glow all over I Made a Place. The lovely “Building a Fire” finds him deeply devoting himself to a lover, with the gorgeous arrangement of gentle percussion and guitar strings from Mike Hyman and Nathan Salsburg, with Jacob Duncan’s multi-instrumental accompaniment. Stripping away and returning to nature (both human and environmental) feels like the core mission of I Made a Place, which means that maybe it is the closest we’ve ever come to really seeing the genuine inner workings of Will Oldham. Or maybe not. The mystery remains.