Bill Callahan: Dream River (Drag City)
Dream River, the new album from Bill Callahan, the artist formerly known as Smog, is a fascinating patchwork of whispers of joy, intimations of mortality and rumours of trouble scattered through eight spare, wistful, meditative songs that sometimes sound more like notes for future works read into a voice recorder than completed compositions. idp listens to a fine new work from one of the best song writers in the world today.
All the songs on Dream River are delivered in Callahan’s wise young uncle baritone, conversational almost, seldom straying close to anything that would usually be considered singing. Daniel Durchholz famously described Tom Wait’s voice as sounding “like it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car.” Bill Callahan‘s voice doesn’t sound as thoroughly abused as Waits’ but it does sound as though it’s been polished nicely and then forgotten about and left in the garden for a few nights.
Although it’s not as upbeat and musically liberated as some of its predecessors the album features some nice splashes of violin, accordion, flute and guitar, (sometimes evoking memories of Mitchell and Pastorius) but they’re just for colour; this is very much a solo vocal album with incidental music. The songs are often fragmentary and opaque and at times it feels almost like listening in on private thoughts spoken accidentally aloud. When applied to song writing the adjective ‘personal’ is often code for ‘not the artist’s best work’ but these are songs where the personal nature of the lyric is what raises them above the mundane and into the realm of the exceptional. It’s tempting to label them poetry but that’s too glib. The truth is that these are songs – just very complex and subtle songs that take a lot of teasing apart.
The whole album is heavy with a restrained emotion (restraint is one of the things Callahan excels at) that sounds at first like guilt or grief but gradually reveals itself to be passion. Despite the veneer of calm these are deeply carnal songs.
“All I really want to do is make love to you
In the fertile dirt with a careless mind”
…. he sings on Spring which feels like the centre piece of the album. Spring is not a good time of the year – Callahan is with Elliott on this one – breeding lilacs and looking like death warmed over.
So constantly present is carnality, or the promise of carnality, or the recollection of carnality this may well be Callahan’s refractory period album. A large measure of transient tristesse colours the lyrics – these are not songs of the sadness of a man who cannot find anyone to love, rather they are the songs of a man who having found a transcendent other is consumed with the fear of their loss or of his own failure to match up. One sometimes hears of suicides who take their lives because they are so happy they cannot bear the thought that anything might change. This album is probably how they feel. It can be hard work always seeing the skull beneath the skin.
On Javelin Unlanding he says of a sleeping lover –
“You looked so peaceful you scared me.
Don’t die just yet
And leave me alone on this journey.”
And Ride My Arrow opens with the straightforward – “I don’t ever want to die.”
These are the songs of a man who knows that happiness is not permanent, that good things come to an end, loves or lovers die, Summer turns to Autumn. In The Summer Painter a hurricane descends suddenly on a coastal town, marking the end of an idyll. Callahan is frequently an acute observer of the natural world and here he summons what is probably the album’s best line –
“The rain ripped the lips of the mouth of the bay.”
Certain motifs recur throughout. The weather, wind especially, silence, alcohol served in bars, travel. Flying is ever present. It’s a frequent subject for Callahan, but on this album it’s not just birds that fly. On Small Plane a pilot muses on his own good fortune to be flying home with his sleeping wife beside him, navigating without instruments and following the course of the river. Later, on Ride My Arrow an eagle uses the same river as it’s own map, while beavers build dams and seagulls fly.
It’s an album that repays frequent listening to get the best from the layers of imagery and the stories it has to tell. Album opener The Sing could easily be mistaken for a generic drinking song, narrated by an intermittently conscious hotel bar customer –
“The only words I’ve said today are beer and thank you.
And yet the speaker feels that he is somehow “Giving praise in a quiet way” as a storm brews outside and the wind arrives back to ‘ping’ the fabric of the building. No explanation of the drinker’s decision to drink themselves in to oblivion other than a cryptic
“Mortal joy can be that way.”
The songs are so effortless it is easy to overlook the subtlety of their construction. There can’t be many rhyme patterns that have never been used before in popular song but the following is probably unique –
“The silence returns, high as scaffolding,
Until the wind comes back looking for something to ping,
All we’re looking for is a body. Or the way to make one sing.”
And that’s about the size of it. How to make a body sing. It’s tempting to think that perhaps on the evidence of this album Callahan spends too much time thinking about the answer and not enough taking practical steps to find it. Introspection like this is seldom the path to the careless mind.
But he does know how dangerous the search can be and he knows that even when one has found something truly beautiful that does not mean that one has reached the end of one’s journey or the end of the pain that beauty can bring. Human vulnerability is never far from his thoughts – described poignantly in Javelin Unlanding which dwells on the quiet moments in the night when his lover is asleep and they are “laying all twisted together and exposed like roots on a river bank. Bam bam bam! The earth off its axis.”
In Winter Road a truck driver meditates on the beauty and danger of the snow covered highway –
“Oh I have learned when things are beautiful
To just keep on, just keep on
The blinding lights of the kingdom can make you weep
When things are beautiful, just keep on.”
It’s probably good advice.
Bill Callahan can be found at his record company’s website. He doesn’t use Facebook or Twittle. He just makes great music. This makes a refreshing change.