APOCALYPSE NOW Bill Callhan

The Artist
Formerly Known As Smog strips things back and finally paints his masterpiece.

 

BY JOHN SCHACHT

An editor I wrote for years ago told me he didn’t like Bill Callahan because
he thought he was “trying too hard to sound like somebody else.” I nearly
scratched my head bloody over that one because, love Callahan or hate him, it’d
be difficult to find a more idiosyncratic musician since he began releasing
music two decades ago.

 

With such a distinctive voice – lyrically and literally with that
sonorous tuba-fone – change in Callahan’s music tends to be incremental: subtle
shifts in instrumentation, arrangements and tempos nudge in new directions
narratives that always root around in the most vulnerable corners of the human
psyche. On 2007’s Woke On a Whaleheart,
his first after dropping the Smog/(Smog) appellation and moving to Austin, Texas,
Callahan expanded his songwriting palette of loping gaits, twangy shuffles, chugging
rockers and creaky piano ballads with accents of gospel choruses and
call-and-response blues. On 2009’s Sometimes
I Wish We Were an Eagle
, he added sweeping orchestral strings and horns,
hinting at gothic country while sidestepping its tropes.

 

On his latest for venerable label Drag City, the 7-song, 40-minute Apocalypse, Callahan strips away those elements and relies on one
or two accents per song – a Wurlitzer or a whistle; a fiddle, flute, or feedback
– to make this record feel as barren as the Texas brushlands. Love in its various gray
shades is Callahan’s narrative stock-in-trade, but on Apocalypse he’s just as often wrestling with the ups and downs of
the thought process going on underneath, and the anthropomorphic imagery that
he’s so partial to lines up with the music here in evocative unison. He
supplies what almost amounts to a Rosetta stone on “Universal Applicant,” where
flute and syncopated chords wind around a bass line and snare-shuffle like a
caduceus while Callahan sings, “Without work’s calving increments/Or love’s
coltish punch/What would I be?/An animal-less isthmus beyond the sea.”

 

This metaphor-music nexus is most notable on the stunning opener “Drover.”
Ranking among Callahan’s finest songs, this gorgeous 6/8 canter builds to a
strummed crescendo where fiddle and feedback blow through like tumbleweeds. The
writer who once declared “I break horses” tries here to corral his self-consciousness,
and eventually gives in – with liberating relief — to the same untamed logic that
typifies the land: “One thing about this wild, wild country/It takes a strong,
strong it breaks a strong, strong mind.”

 

Callahan goes from fauna to flora and drover to gardener on “Baby’s
Breath,” contrasting the wildflower associated with everlasting love and innocence with its eventual turn to hay as he bemoans a
lost love. Here the feedback threatens to overwhelm the finger-picked acoustic
and shuffling beat – an echo of the narrative contrast – as he concedes that
“you must reap what you sow/or sing.” That topic is also handled beautifully in
ballad form on “Riding for the Feeling,” warm Wurlitzer and guitar curlicues
circling each other and the brushed percussion like first-blush lovers before
the eventual break-up “apocalypse.” Callahan is looking back wistfully on the
intense connectivity of relationships — “It’s never easy to say goodbye/To the
faces/So rarely do we see another one/So close and so long” – but with the song
title serving as a mantra, he vows to enjoy the ride while it’s happening.

 

By the graceful closing track “One
Fine Morning” (at nearly nine minutes, the record’s longest), Callahan has
pulled off the neat trick of reversing the order of things – both musically and
lyrically — from opening track “Drover.” Over a slowly strummed acoustic and some
of the most elegiac C&W piano chords you’ll ever hear (courtesy of
Shearwater’s Jonathan Meiburg), Callahan now seems to be inviting the listener
to join him in “my apocalypse.” Only here it suggests the nuking (if you will)
of all the wasted time and energy spent spinning in the self-conscious circles that
keep us from the surrounding natural wonder we are part of. Callahan sings of the
scales (or veils) falling from his eyes as the “curtain rose and burned in the
morning sun/And the mountains bowed down like a ballet/Like a ballet of the
heart,” then declares in his deepest baritone, “Hey! No more drovering!/No more
drovering!/When the earth turns cold and the earth turns black/Will I feel you
riding on my back?”

 

Callahan’s wit is nearly as arid as the Texas
territory, and the song ends with him intoning “DC450” – the record’s Drag City
catalog number – to tie a light-hearted bow on things. That crooked sense of
humor fuels the chugging, guitar-fuzz rocker “America,” too, but it’s arguably
the disc’s one sore thumb. It’s an ambiguous paean to his homeland, bemoaning
its history of needless wars and historical amnesia while praising what he sees
as its real warriors and truth tellers, “Captain Kristofferson!/Buck Sergeant
Newbury!/Leatherneck Jones!/Sergeant Cash!”

 

Callahan may not believe his work belongs in their company – “I never
served my country,” he sings right after listing that roster – but Apocalypse, Callahan’s 14th full-length,
suggests he will eventually wind up among those equally unique American musical
treasures.

 

[Photo Credit: Kirstie Stanley]

 

Bill Callahan is
currently on tour in the U.K.
and Europe. His U.S. tour starts June 14 – full
itinerary here
.

 

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