Album Review: Matt Sweeney & Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy – Superwolves

[Drag City; 2021]

When modern audiences think of the ‘old’ America, the images conjured up by their collective memories are not that of factual history. Instead, they’re an amalgamation of mythology and mysticism. Look no further than the ideal of the old West, which is more influenced by the language of Cormack McCarthy and the imagery of New Hollywood’s Acid Westerns. In culture, the past is always reframed through the kaleidoscope of the present, like ghostly echoes of cyclical struggles that find themselves reincarnated with each coming generation. Examples of that can be found in all art forms, but it’s especially striking in a work like Peter Fonda’s The Hired Hand, with its trippy overlays and LSD-fuelled folk tunes. The work conjures images of masculine gender roles and the American landscape that not only rewrite our idea of the past, but reprogram our ideas of the dynamics inherent to the world.

That’s why the 2005 collaborative album Superwolf marked a career high for both Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy and Matt Sweeney. Fresh out of Zwan, Sweeney married his airy, free-floating guitar style (somewhere between Dinosaur Jr. and Smashing Pumpkins) to Oldham’s sexy, macabre and provocative lyricism. Two Gen X troubadours entering their middle age, they managed to bottle a very specific type of vibe, somewhere between semi-pornographic Midnight Movie and reworked traditionals. Sonically, it had more in common with Dave Crosby and lost Boomers like Dave Bixby than with grunge-era songwriters. In the album’s unforgiving universe, love would ultimately lead to loss, sex begat violence, and god was never far away, even though the world is marked by his absence. And the acid folk of “What Are You?”, where Sweeney turns from “To take you over my knee / and spank you mercilessly” to “On a bench with your twisted fingers in me / In the rain with my sundress torn off of me”, opened up the possibility of a feminist – or even queer – reading. It’s that universal ambiguity that could shape-shift breathlessly bitter takedowns like “I Gave You”. What once marked the listener’s dismissal of an ex could well become the ex’s hymn in their future failed romance.

Superwolf was successful, spawning sold out concerts where wildly drunken yuppies would haul the lyrics out in churches and basements, and one of the truly greatest band shirts of all time: a cartoon wolf mating a naked woman, followed by the one-liner “SUPERWOLF: Now you’re fucked!” Yet, the album didn’t spark a follow-up – Oldham returned to his solo ventures and the occasional bizarre collaboration, while Sweeney became a bit of a hired hand.

That’s why the announcement of Superwolves (brilliant sequel title, really) came as such a shock: it has been 16 years since these two butted heads. Countless other artists had treaded their path since, entire careers began and ended within that timespan – not to mention that the world had also moved away from its obsession with the old America (I can’t even recall what the last successful Western was… maybe Bone Tomahawk?). So maybe it’s purposeful that the record’s cover – a hazy mish-mash of ghostly MS-paint apparitions drifting through the universe – is a far cry from the bloody hand that graced the predecessor: maybe the duo wants to be done with expectations.

Indeed, Superwolves is no Superwolf. Where the predecessor sounded like an apocalyptic eulogy to the hippie dream (ca. 1970), its sequel recalls when Generation X figureheads like Beck and Billy Corgan indulged in colourful improvisations that defied genre (ca. 1993). Somebody keen on political analysis can see this return to the style of Clinton-era vibes as an embrace of the current optimism surrounding democratic leaders. But it could also just harken back to the ongoing re-appreciation of the ‘anything goes’ postmodernism of the 90s.

There’s little folk left in songs like “Watch What Happens”, with its almost Beatles-like guitar stylings, or the poppy single “Resist the Urge”. Those tracks firmly embedded in Americana – such as “Good to My Girls”, “Shorty’s Ark” and “Hall of Death” – still feel more After the Gold Rush than On the Beach, allowing Sweeney to indulge in a myriad of tonal varieties, incorporating odd hints of flamenco, country and blues, or adding an out-of-nowhere progressive-rock part (like in closer “No Fooling”, where he combines electric guitars with a synthesizer).

There’s also less darkness and heartbreak here than expected. The acid clearly is better these days: no more nightmares or panic-inducing hallucinations, just flowing shapes and happy colours. While there is still the occasional monster or beast (“Make Worry for Me” is a lumbering heavy track a la Crazy Horse, and the stubborn “Not Fooling” rejects any tomfoolery), a track like the Superwolf highlight “Blood Embrace” seems wholly unimaginable on this album. Where that song almost felt like something out of Michael Gira’s pen, the present “My Blue Suit” almost evokes Sufjan Stevens in its heart-warming honesty and loveliness. Part of that might come with Oldham’s age. Here he openly encourages what seems a combination of a partner and fellow musician: “We go off and sing together / I am naked, you’re in blue / You really wear my blue suit better / You wear it smarter than I do.” The emperor doesn’t need his sun dress torn off of him anymore – maybe because his audience has grown past the bloodshed of grief present 16 years ago. Where the predecessor’s “I Gave You” spouted “I gave you my body / And you had plenty / I gave you 10 lives / And you wasted 20,” the Superwolves highlight “My Body is My Own” responds optimistically with “I don’t care if you malign me / And I don’t mind if you abuse… My next life will prove to you / That I could see what God provided / And how to put those things to use.”

Where Superwolf imagined Sweeney and Oldham as blood-splattered riders or jealousy-crazed sailors turning into godless cannibals and sodomites, Superwolves has them sitting on the porch and watching the sun set as their children play in the high grass. As they reach for a glass of cold lemonade, the only dirt on their hands is that of the ground they plough, not the blood of those they sent off this world. That makes for a less gripping experience; the predecessor’s bitter, sexual tone made it unique and unforgettable, working off of the subconscious urges of the post 9/11 George Bush Jr. era, but the sequel’s gentle acceptance of the world and all therein allows something thought impossible on that first album: forgiveness. While the heroes of New Hollywood westerns died on the road, Sweeney and Oldham have made peace with their world.