You will I hope join with me in celebrating the addition this week to Bill Callahan’s February 2014 tour, of a second date at the Royal Festival Hall. I reviewed his album Dream River for the readers of The National – the broadsheet newspaper of the United Arab Emirates. As you will infer from the edit, the title of Bill’s 2000 LP Dongs Of Sevotion was deemed inappropriate for that publication’s market.
More info on tickets here: http://www.southbankcentre.co.uk/whatson/bill-callahan-78995?dt=2014-02-07
For the singer-songwriters of Bill Callahan’s generation, who made their first records in the early 1990s, the operative word was often “enigmatic”. Will Oldham, who today records as Bonnie “Prince” Billy, adopted various pseudonyms based around the word “Palace”, and made records of obscure subject and provenance, which he was not inclined to elucidate. Stephen Malkmus, of the group Pavement, spoke in riddles, Lou Barlow, the frontman of Sebadoh, traded in misery, pure, simple and pseudonymous. Callahan himself recorded as Smog, sometimes (Smog), the name a cloak of vagueness (was Smog a band, or a solo artist?) from which he was able to evade the job description of “singer-songwriter”.
Not that this would necessarily have been anyone’s immediate label for his earliest works. These, like his home-recorded second album, Forgotten Foundation (1992) are obscure to the point of inaudible. If you can determine anything from them at 20 years remove, it is a certain ironic wit. One song, Guitar Innovator, features Callahan bawling musicianly clichés, including “We’re just a rock ‘n’ roll band!” over and over.
At the time, when the world was empathising with and emoting to successful rock bands like Nirvana, this kind of home-recorded, unambitious pursuit was representative of something called “lo-fi”. It took place in bedrooms, not stadiums. It was not commercially successful. But in its way it was no less cathartic, and certainly no less vital a way for individual voices to find expression.
Bill Callahan’s was perhaps the most significant of these voices, and his sound has been becoming progressively more well-articulated ever since. This is music that is played on guitar but isn’t folk, is rural but isn’t country, and is literary but without being self-conscious. Even well before his 2007 decision to throw off the title Smog and to release his Woke on a Whaleheart album under his own name, his music had moved by increments towards the laconic and original work he makes today.
His 1999 album Knock Knock incorporated several magnificent examples of his developing art. In River Guard, he conjured a languid short story about taking prison inmates swimming, which evolved into a meditation on encroaching time. Cold Blooded Old Times pathologised sexual nostalgia (“How can I stand and laugh with the man,” he sang, grimly, “Who redefined your body …”). This would be a field into which he moved with some ribaldry on his next album. Its key number was a song called Dress Sexy at My Funeral, in which the deceased recalled the various locations in which he and his wife formerly made love.
Callahan’s work hasn’t altered enormously since this time – it is sensual, often features rivers, and like a great short story, it leaves you to intuit the story beyond the fragment you have been shown – but his art, like the voice with which he sings his songs, has deepened, become richer.
The man himself, meanwhile, remains a difficult book, if not quite a closed one. His work is increasingly respected, and his love life (he has been involved with singer-songwriters Cat Power and Joanna Newsom; this new album is thought to reflect domestic contentment) the subject of some scrutiny among his constituency. A colleague recently described to me a screening of a Bill Callahan tour documentary called Apocalypse (a film in which Callahan utters no words to the camera) as being received by this same constituency as if it were a Will Ferrell comedy.
Dream River, Callahan’s 15th studio album, makes impressive use of his powerful, mature voice. It’s a voice with the wisdom of geological time – not far off the voice-over you’ll hear on, say, a PBS documentary about global warming. This is not a man who has got where he is without being self-aware, so he uses its power sparingly. It can give gravity to his lyrical wisdom (the boats worked on by the narrator of Summer Painter are “Rich man’s folly/Poor man’s dream …”). It can dignify bumper sticker philosophy (“Life ain’t confidential …” he says obliquely in Ride My Arrow). On Seagull, meanwhile, his customary conflation of ornithological and human worlds evokes a playful Tom Waits shanty: “A barroom may entice a seagull like me,” he gently sways, his voice tuba-deep. “Barroom, barroom!”
A voice like this is traditionally said to have gravitas, but gravity is a condition his most recent songs try to elude. An image to which he has returned on several occasions is that of an eagle in flight, navigating its way by the course of a river. It’s powerfully an American image, and a feature of Callahan’s mature writing is certainly his specific, if idiosyncratic address to his country.
The eagle at which an archer aims in Ride My Arrow, however, feels designed to reveal a different truth: how it is the very presence of mortality which makes life worth living. In this tableau, the loosed arrow is already part of the eagle, just as the small animal in its claws seems, paradoxically, to be enjoying the ride. In the Apocalypse documentary, Callahan’s most revealing remark is probably concerning the reason his songs include references to transport, even of the animal kind. “Transport is motion,” he said, “and motion is life.”
Small Plane is another wonderful example of such airborne life. An evocative short story in the vein of The River Guard, it is narrated by a student pilot whose love for his instructor has blossomed during lessons. He navigates by instinct rather than technology, and the couple’s intimacy is illustrated by the fact that she can go to sleep beside him while he flies home. It’s a touchingly literal vignette in a scenario potentially loaded with double entendre. “When I take the controls from you,” Callahan intones softly, “I really am a lucky man …”
That’s not to say that Callahan’s world is no longer one of sex and sensuality. Spring, with its flute – often a musical shorthand for bucolic reveries in song – proceeds to dismantle the idea of chaste Wordsworthian reflections on nature and the imagination. A landscape is just geography, he maintains here, whatever he may write about it: “Mountains don’t need my accolades …”. His response is more basic: “All I want to do …” he says, as a funky wah-wah guitar break mounts in insistence behind him, “… is make love to you/With a careless mind/In the fertile dirt …”
It’s this kind of unpredictable twist in the tale that makes Callahan (and indeed some of his contemporaries) so valuable. At a time in his career when lesser artists might be turning inland into more populist arenas, Callahan is continuing to stretch his sound, matching in his music the subversion and innovation of his lyrics.
The magnificent Javelin Unlanding proceeds at a disjointed canter that recalls the desert blues of Tinariwen. Seagull (during which the album’s title is discreetly buried in the mix for discovery later, like a time capsule) concludes with a shape shifting jazz-fusion jam. It even appears that Dream River will eventually appear in a “dub” version – which is to say remixed employing the psychedelic studio techniques employed by Jamaican reggae producers of the 1970s.
Winter Road, the song that concludes the album, is satisfying most of these levels. It is slow, and it is purposeful, and in it Callahan recounts a lorry journey that is as beautiful as it is treacherous. In short, we are passing a sign on the motorway that says You Are Now Entering: Metaphors For Life. Along the way, Callahan shifts the song up a gear into the realm of the screenplay. “A Donald Sutherland interview comes on the truck radio,” he murmurs. “Long shot of my face.”
The driver’s trip finds a way of expressing truths familiar to every haulage driver or touring musician, or indeed heroic explorer of classical literature. Namely, that one should not be deterred by seemingly attractive distractions, and instead maintain a fix on the predetermined goal.
“The blinding lights of the kingdom can make you weep,” he sings, in a keening voice. “I have learnt … When things are beautiful, just keep on.”
As it is with this lorry driver on an icy motorway, so it is with Bill Callahan, and everyone else that has ever attempted a challenging enterprise. This may be a difficult path, but you should know, if you can only keep your equanimity, it will prove to be a rewarding one.