As the years went by, the prospect of a follow-up to Superwolf seemed increasingly unlikely – but then again, the album wasn’t poised to become a beloved indie classic, either. A collaboration between Will Oldham, the enigmatic singer-songwriter who since 1998 has been using the moniker Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, and Matt Sweeney, the in-demand session guitarist who has worked with everyone from Neil Diamond to Adele, the 2005 LP received little press coverage but earned its cult status thanks to a handful of ardent admirers who were drawn by the pair’s mystical bond. Their chemistry was so profound it repeatedly brought out new layers to each of the album’s complex yet oddly comforting songs; even if Superwolf proved to be a one-time thing, it was enough to assure fans their partnership would endure.
Sweeney and Oldham continued to make a lot of music – mostly separately, but occasionally together – and 16 years later, they’ve returned with Superwolves, billed not just as a follow-up but a direct sequel to its predecessor. It’s perhaps no surprise that they’ve managed to recapture that same energy – their nearly 25-year-old friendship has only sharpened their ability to play off each other’s strengths, becoming the sole constant character throughout the album’s loose and ambiguous narratives. If there’s a strange air of unfamiliarity to the project, it’s more to do with the way it can be consumed and perceived: forces outside their control, like the increased visibility from media outlets, or more disconcertingly, the streaming data attached to each of its 14 superb tracks, reducing each listener to a number.
But as a continuation of Superwolf, the new record is also marked by a newfound sense of vitality and purpose. These are crisp, buoyant songs that eschew the introverted, solitary qualities often associated with the singer-songwriter tag without stripping away the unique intimacy that can arise from it. Standout ‘Hall of Death’ is propelled by a driving instrumental courtesy of Tuareg guitar hero Mdou Moctar, while on ‘Shorty’s Ark’, Sweeney guides Oldham’s voice as he gleefully breezes through a list of animals: “Giant squids and honey bears, moles in the ground/ Killer whales, pocket wolves, rhinoceros and hound.” When he arrives at the final “Your best friend and me,” they might as well be in conversation with each other.
“What Will is great at is communicating how close horror is to love,” Sweeney said in a recent interview. In the process of making Superwolves, Oldham’s penchant for juxtaposing seemingly opposing forces has only been amplified. Nowhere is this more evident than on the opening track, ‘Make Worry For Me’, a song whose ominous intensity is both heightened and complicated by their intertwined performances: the guitar melody edges Oldham’s voice just enough to reveal its true, unsettling colours, culminating in a rugged, fiery solo from Sweeney.
‘Good to My Girls’ and ‘God is Waiting’ seem to continue this pattern, but as the album progresses, one can sense the pair settling on gentler, simpler songs that rely on emotional impact rather than ambivalence. As with Superwolf, there’s still a lot to unpack, but the ease with which the two artists exchange ideas is accompanied by songwriting that, at its core, is stronger and more direct than before. ‘Resist the Urge’ is a warm, soothing folk tune steeped in empathy, while the melody on ‘My Body Is My Own’ is enchanting, the lyrics striking in their poignancy. There’s a loneliness here that reverberates throughout the album, but seems to specifically call back to earlier highlight ‘There Must Be Someone’: “Got no friends, got no home/ There must be a someone I can turn to,” Oldham sings. Sweeney steps in for a brief solo halfway through, but his playing remains less an answer than a constant, reassuring presence.