Bonnie Prince Billy - Is It The Sea?

Scott Telfer 18/10/2008

Rating: 3/5

Despite a career that spans two decades and includes some 16 albums (under various monikers) and a menchie on a rubbish Biffy Clyro single, Bonnie 'Prince' Billy (Will Oldham to his mum) remains something of an enigmatic figure, and is still collecting fans from across the globe with his emotive songwriting. He's rarely predictable as an artist, both in his recoded output and in live performances. For the latter, he draws upon his experience as an actor to ensnare the audience and with the reputation his shows have earned it's a bit of a surprise that it has taken this long to release a live album.

'Is it the Sea' was recorded in Edinburgh during 2006 and prior to the release of 'The Letting Go'. It finds him bringing traditional Scottish folk musicians into the fold, namely Harem Scarem and percussionist Alex Neilson. The Gaelic influence comes through strongly across the whole album with some beautiful harmonies and fiddle playing altering or adding to the feeling of the songs, and almost all of the songs here fit surprisingly well into this mould.

The more rollicking Arise Therefore gives the album a much needed change of pace, but as usual it is the dramatic moments where the magic truly lies. On New Partner, Billy turns one of the most overused lines in pop music 'you were always on my mind' into something fresh and raw and heartbreaking, delivering a vocal performance of fragile tenderness. Love Comes to Me, one of the highlights from 'The Letting Go', is again one of the strongest tracks here with some of the studio version's restraint and poise being swapped for what is close to gleeful exuberance.

Without the visual spectacle, it has to be said that there are a couple of points where the album drags a little. Three of the songs here push seven minutes and it's maybe just the way I've been conditioned to lose focus at anything lasting more than four (you can insert your own joke here if you insist) but the extended cover of Molly Bawn does seem to disrupt the flow of the record. Overall though this is a solid live album with some moments of magic, although newcomers to Billy's work would probably be best to invest in some of his studio output first.