After three years of collaborative projects and live albums, Will Oldham returns with his first proper solo album since 2003's Master and Everyone. On his thirteenth solo LP, the musician/actor/bizarre facial hair enthusiast gloomily treads familiar ground while demonstrating better than ever his skill at honing arrangements to their most effective and heart-wrenching.

The Letting Go is a collection of moody acoustic ballads that walk the line between bluesy folk and chamber pop. From the moment Oldham's fragile, melancholic croon emerges after the cinematically epic intro on the album's first track, "Love Comes to Me," he sets a high standard for what comes next. He doesn't disappoint. The writing here is as solid as anything Oldham has done, possibly even his best since the 1999 minimalist masterpiece, I See A Darkness. Paced with great precision, the album shifts gears after the first few songs with the soulful romp, "Cured Sleep." In this dramatic ode to a lover, the melding of electric blues riffs and stately violins proves a much better combination than common sense would suggest. Along with the more grandiose compositions, Oldham includes songs like "Cold & Wet" and the titular "Then The Letting Go" that exemplify the unadorned instrumentation and lo-fi ethic on which he's built his career.

While many artists must evolve radically over time to remain relevant, it is an attribute of great songwriters to be able to modify their art in the space they've created for themselves. Removed from outside artistic pressures and influence, the writer nonetheless can create music that is significant and compelling. Will Oldham doesn't venture too deeply into new territory on Letting Go, but instead expands the niche he's been developing for over a decade, refining his songs and lending depth to his arrangements. Always a highlight on his earlier albums, the inclusion of more female accompaniment (as in the past, care of Dawn McCarthy) testifies to Oldham's growth and his sense of what compliments his songwriting best. Track by track, McCarthy's versatile voice shifts perfectly to capture each song's feel: airy and haunting on the tender waltz, "Wai," shrill and fierce on the raucous "Seedling." This presence of more vocal harmonic depth, coupled with lush and simply devastating string orchestrations, makes the album his most rich and sonically complex release to date. Like Nick Drake's Bryter Layter or Elliot Smith's XO, The Letting Go exposes a songwriter reveling for the first time in his music's fullest and most brilliant aural potential.


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