She holds a phantom
She kisses and she hugs him
And I am not
Averse to how she loves him
Why must I live and walk, unloved as what I am?
If the opening verse of Will Oldham’s (AKA Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy) melancholic masterpiece does not immediately thrust one into existential catatonia, then perhaps one should search their carotid artery for signs of a pulse.
The fourth track from 2003’s hauntingly stirring Master and Everyone, “Wolf Among Wolves” scratches beautiful symmetrical lines between identifying a lover’s feelings and acts of affection and the tumultuous negative core belief (I am unable to be an apt partner) of the song’s subject.
How they have arrived here, or how long the man’s game of psychological tug-of-war has been tormenting him, we don’t know. As captive as the opening lines are, things only get more bleak, and, sadly, more relatable, as Oldham laments
She craves a hole that she can go in
A sheltered cave that I have never seen
Not in my life
And not even in my dreams
To the outsider, it’s clear (if not intended) that Oldham’s ‘wolf’, full of self-doubt and a side order of self-loathing, seems resigned to exhausted inferiority. Unable to provide the (likely) emotional shelter he recognizes his partner dearly desires and needs. For an artist who is no stranger to the strange (see him co-star with Zach Galifianakis in the hilarious video for “Can’t Tell Me Nothing”,) Oldham is a master of reducing the complexities of the human experience into something to which most listeners can both translate and relate.
Within his vast, two-decade canon of work, this feat is as apparent in “Wolf Among Wolves” as it is in any of his other triumphs.
Celebrated and covered by acts such as Johnny Cash (“I See A Darkness,) Cat Power (Wolf Among Wolves,) and Band of Horses (whose band name is taken from one of Oldham’s songs,) Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy might be the least-known artist with over 30 albums under his belt in as many years.
A constant figurehead of the mystical, misunderstood, lone-wolf-with-guitar genre, Oldham sings true in the chorus, leaving enough space and air for the listener to contemplate their own existence as he questions
Why can’t I be loved as what I am?
A wolf among wolves, and not as a man among men.
One can only hope that Will Oldham, A.K.A. Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, recognizes and accepts that he is not only loved – but celebrated – for exactly what he is: A humble, quiet, sincere tour-de-force.