Album Of The Week: Bonny Light Horseman – Rolling Golden Holy

The folk supergroup returns with an album that takes the brain-tingling melodies of their debut in even more impressive directions

Things that were made to go together: salt and vinegar, peanut butter and jam, Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell, crisps and chocolate, Anaïs Mitchell and Eric Johnson’s voices. There’s an alternate universe where Mitchell, Johnson and multi-instrumentalist Josh Kaufman are wandering troubadours, singing together since early childhood, bewitching townsfolk. Maybe it’s a Station Eleven-esque dystopian reset, maybe it’s some parallel version of late-19th century America. Whatever it is, this doesn’t belong to this present in this world. It’s too perfect, too pure, too lovely.

Bonny Light Horseman – "Bonny Light Horseman" (Official Audio)

That pure, perfect loveliness maybe comes from the fact that Bonny Light Horseman didn’t really need to exist. By the time they came to record their heart-stopping, self-titled 2020 debut, none of the trio was wanting for success. Johnson had a long, storied career as the leader of celebrated Sub Pop indie poppers Fruit Bats, Anaïs Mitchell had a lauded solo career and a Tony for Hadestown, and Kaufman was in permanent demand, working with everyone from The National to The War On Drugs. Bonny Light Horseman wasn’t born out of anything other than that some things just need to be. Isn’t that the purest reason to create?

Bonny Light Horseman - California (official audio)

Even the band’s debut had a one-and-done feel to it, a special occasion so dazzling that expecting a repeat seemed redundant. But here we are, Bonny Light Horseman are back with a sequel to perhaps the best folk record of the last ten years. Does lightning strike twice? In short, yes.

That’s not to suggest that Rolling Golden Holy is a retread. Where their debut folded traditional folk standards into original material, this time around, Mitchell, Johnson and Kaufman venture forth from that point into an album of entirely original material. Opener ‘Exile’ weaves the traditional textures of Bonny Light Horseman into something more contemporary, sparse banjo and guitar playing off against warm synths. By the rousing chorus, Mitchell and Johnson’s high, keening harmonies seem to have meshed into one glorious voice.

Bonny Light Horseman - Exile (official audio)

The trio’s strengths – those harmonies, the judicious arrangements and performances, Kaufman’s warm, close-quarters production – would be wasted if the material wasn’t there, but Rolling Golden Holy is made up of songs that would sit at atop of any of Bonny Light Horseman’s respective highlights. The lilting ‘California’ positively swoons, holding Mitchell’s voice back until you’re urging it to join in. Once it does, the whole song rises up into one of the record’s loveliest choruses.

Bonny Light Horseman - Someone to Weep for Me (official audio)

It seems churlish to pick one moment over any other, but it’s impossible to talk about Rolling Golden Holy without paying special attention to ‘Someone To Weep For Me’. If anyone involved has written or played on a better song, they’ve kept it selfishly quiet. Over sprightly guitar and a heavenly melody, Johnson returns to the wars of yore that coloured the band’s debut, telling the story of a doomed nobody who just wants someone to miss him when he dies. Kaufman’s guitarwork hauls the song out of the 1800s and ties the ideas of traditional and contemporary folk into one beautiful bow.

Bonny Light Horseman - Sweetbread (official audio)

The ten-a-penny YouTubers and songwriting workshoppers who claim to have the recipe for a perfect song are either charlatans or a fools. A perfect song is so ridiculously elusive and subjective, but you know it when you hear it. At the risk of hyperbole, there are three perfect songs on Rolling Golden Holy: ‘California’, ‘Someone To Weep For Me’ and ‘Fleur De Lis’, a song that holds everything that is wonderful about Anaïs Mitchell under a spotlight. Over a steady heartbeat, Mitchell sings a tenderly insistent love song, repeating the line “Everything was golden” three times before adding “in your embrace”. Each instance becomes more emphatic as if frustrated that she can’t quite convey its meaning by just saying it once. Pure, perfect, lovely. Bonny Light Horseman have done it again.

Rolling Golden Holy by Bonny Light Horseman is out on 7 October to buy and stream. Get tickets here for Bonny Light Horseman’s 2023 UK tour