There is something about a Bill Callahan song, something about that voice, that makes it seem like he’s about to tell you a joke in an ill-lit bar. It could be the worst joke in the world, or it could be the best, like that one in Monty Python that’s so funny it kills anyone who hears it. The fine line between death and laughter erased by absurdity.
Callahan has always sat astride that line – and has often found ways to perform a few impressive tricks whilst doing so. His technique on The Sing, the first track on his new record Dream River, is to position himself in that same old dark hotel bar and have it populated with ‘sleeping strangers’ as he recounts the toil and tedium of the touring lifestyle, strangers who are within his presence but at the same time not, people who could be listening to him, but would ultimately rather fall off their barstools asleep or unconscious through choice or necessity. This is the kind of company Bill likes best.
He never takes anything for granted. ‘The only words I said today were “beer” and “thank you”’, he sings (or half-sings) in The Sing – he is always grateful for his position, despite his world-weariness. There can be no singing without the hotel rooms, the beer. Without the audience. Even when the audience is unconscious, even when the last man has drunk himself to the floor before the punch line hits.
The Sing is an ostensibly gentle opening. The lyrics conceal their subtleties under a blanket of quotidian description. In stark contrast to the more focussed moments of previous album Apocalypse, it is restrained, some might say aimless, but guided by fiddle and guitar. To be fair, it is not truly representative of the album’s sound. Javelin Unlanding introduces the default musical setting, defined by agile hand drums and Beth Galiger’s swooping flute. Throughout the album, guitars arrive and depart in occasional moments of stab and squall.
There is nothing on here as immediately arresting, or as challenging, as Apocalypse’s America, nothing that swells or accumulates like the best moments of 2009’s Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle. The joys of Dream River are harder to find because they are, it would seem, simpler. It is full of juxtapositions and uncertainties. ‘We call it spring though things are dying’, Callahan sings in Spring, before discovering ‘the true spring is in you’ – a trite observation were it not for the deadpan delivery, which renders it a lyrical revelation, albeit one hidden in plain sight.
As ever in Callahan’s universe things appear and disappear, repeat themselves. Totems and symbols – eagles, rivers – are invoked, or rather haul themselves from earlier narratives, as if they were the controlling spirits of Callahan’s songwriting muse rather than crisply-cut pieces of an inter- and intra-textual puzzle. Part of his authorial talent lies in his seamless comingling of the elemental and the everyday. This added to his formidable turn of phrase make him one of the most distinctive and valuable songwriters currently working. Dream River is another stunning chapter, an album where nothing shouts but everything works.
Review by: Thomas Blake
Also out: Expanding Dub / Highs in the Mid-40’s Dub (12″ Single)
Dream River is released on Drag City 16 Sep 2013