Will Oldham, now 53, has not sounded young for a quarter-century. Perhaps he last did in the waning days of Palace Music, back when he sang about wanting to “fuck a mountain” with unmistakable élan or fretted about wasting his life beneath the dim bar light, back when he was “younger folk as we.” But at least since I See a Darkness, his career-affirming 1999 debut as Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Oldham has suggested the shellshocked canary emerging from some Kentucky coal mine, sharing the news of what he’d seen down below—death and sex, love and rejection, doom and wonder—in a prematurely aged warble. As a singer, Oldham has always seemed an anachronism against our perennial advance. As a bandleader, however, he has long been dubious of conventions, bending the folk, country, and blues forms he understood so deeply into radical, intuitive shapes. There have been ginger acoustic exceptions, of course, but from his ramshackle start to the gilded surrealism of 2019’s I Made a Place, Oldham has sought new settings for his antediluvian tone.

Drummer-less and devoid of electric instruments, Keeping Secrets Will Destroy You—as stinging as a switch, as soft as a parent’s embrace—feels as if Oldham is finally facing both his age and place, reconciling them through quiet songs that speak loudly. He is the longtime troubadour and relatively new father loading whatever insights, aggravations, and ambitions he has gathered into songs that are close to the marrow, mostly clear of sinew. These dozen songs move as if written at a kitchen table as his family sleeps nearby, with quiet dawns illuminating anthems of perseverance and joy and rustling darkness supplying moments of apocalyptic vision. They sound domestic, too, like some friends with fiddles and horns simply swung by on a Sunday afternoon to try out some new stuff in the living room. “Usually I can be found with my family,” Oldham sings at one point with measured warmth, “courageous and careful and loving our now, and wow.”

As ever, Oldham does not shy from darkness. Just seconds after he hits the one-minute mark of opener “Like It or Not,” where a jaunty jangle is a Trojan horse for certain oblivion, he reminds us that “everyone dies in the end, so there’s nothing to hide.” There are goodbyes and losses, acts of vengeance and moments of scorn. Hand upon hand, his family marches into slaughter, and, at some inevitable point, the “grueling death bell knells.”

But Oldham wields these facts not as lamentations but as tools for better living. By and large, these songs are emphatic instruction manuals for a more robust existence because we’re always in the shadows of all kinds of ends—divorce, death, annihilation, whatever. Where he once famously wrote of his drive to live and not let go, not having the option of eternity now empowers him. He sings of that death bell, for instance, during the delightful “Behold! Be Held!,” his guileless paean to making music, to rendering life’s lessons in songs we can share. “Bananas” continues the esteemed tradition of Oldham’s funny and sweet songs about sex, as he fills “every hole with something warmer than the dawn.” And though it is just Oldham and a carefully picked guitar, “Rise and Rule (She Was Born in Honolulu)” is an anthem of rising above, its protagonist building a world of which she can be proud against impossible odds. It’s so stirring you may feel like shouting along, even while Oldham almost whispers.

Meanwhile, the tender mid-album tandem, “Sing Them Down Together” and “Kentucky Is Water,” encourages us to discard what we think we know, or to remain open to the certainty that none of us actually know very much at all. “Never try to deny a wind its blowing,” he sings during the latter, a Buddha-informed lullaby for other parents or anyone open to more empathy and experience. “The moment you do, your heart will be lost to eternity.” These are Oldham’s little lectures on learning and loving, musically stripped of the need to be anything other than efficient and memorable. They just are.

Oldham’s real gifts come in songs about standing up not necessarily for yourself but for the things that give your world shape and meaning. It is clear in “Willow, Pine and Oak,” where he deploys arboreal observations to extol his dearest virtues, like the oak’s strength, patience, and usefulness. So canny and rich with folk knowledge, the beauty feels like some Seeger family standard. That sense is just as clear from its successor and seeming antagonist, “Trees of Hell,” a timorous and Tolkien-like scene where the peaceful organisms we’ve defiled for our every need finally have their revenge. “We saw inherent harmony, assumed it was our gift,” he sings over a strangling string drone and mandolin plucks that intimate the tick-tock of a doomsday clock. Early in the album, Oldham avers that the sight of justice makes us grin; however sinister this scenario may seem, then, there is a gratifying righteousness at its core.

Two years ago, I called Oldham to talk about Michael Hurley, the inveterate trickster and songwriter who has served as a sort of spiritual forebear for his music and mythology. He wanted to know if I’d seen the photograph of Hurley and Merle Haggard meeting in Ohio, the mischievous Snock extending his skinny hand to the outlaw country legend. “One of the greatest photographs—M.H. squared, my biggest heroes,” he said, still gobsmacked. “Seeing those two together is so much.” More than any other Oldham album, Keeping Secrets Will Destroy You represents that unlikely nexus. The songs are homespun and simple and ineffably strange, like the best of Hurley. But they deliver the well-earned and incisive takeaways that was Haggard at his best, too. It is a rare combination from anyone, and Oldham is the vanishingly rare songwriter who has become both more emotionally generous and lyrically efficient as he’s aged. Oldham long sounded like he had wisdom to share, and he sometimes did. Keeping Secrets Will Destroy You overflows with it.

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Bonnie “Prince” Billy: Keeping Secrets Will Destroy You