Bill Callahan — who, as Smog, spent nearly 20 years massaging his low-fi sound — brandishes a deadpan baritone and a trickster sense of humor. The centerpiece of his third disc under his own name is "America!" — on which he makes "Native American" rhyme with Afghanistan, Vietnam and Iran, and fires off guitar volleys that recall Jimi Hendrix's "Star-Spangled Banner." But the man clearly relishes supersize American grandeur: The album's gentle bookends, "Drover" and "One Fine Morning," follow a cattle driver's arc from heartbreak all the way to the afterlife. Throughout, Callahan swings elegantly from soft and gorgeous to black and grinding.
Apocalypse is Bill Callahan’s newest cryptic journey into the heart and art of this American life. Whether that life belongs to Callahan is never clear—he keeps the listener distant and focuses on apocryphal turns of phrases, sudden pauses, whistles, repetition and an evocative way of singing the word “colt.” Always more Monte Hellman than Martin Scorsese in terms of cinematic scope, Callahan turns in something close to pointed politics on “America!”—showing a love of the States’ greats (Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson) before counting down some of the country’s missteps (Vietnam, Afghanistan) against a rough, ragged 4/4 beat. But as with most of his work, the lines are drawn by the listener.
Bill Callahan and his long-standing alter ego Smog have been a fixture in the American indie rock scene since the early ‘90s, yet his music falls askew of every major music movement. He has experimented with lo-fi and more recently incorporated staple indie instrumentation like organs, winds and strings. However, little of Callahan’s output belongs to any particular community.
When Bill Callahan released Woke On A Whaleheart, his first record under his own name in 2007, there was much speculation as to why he'd ditched the Smog name under which his songs had previously appeared. Was it a change in direction? An openness that hadn’t appeared before? A mark of a newly confident, optimistic Callahan, ready to deliver anthemic songs of hope? A brief listen to Whaleheart, or the next Bill Callahan album, 2009’s Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle, soon put such ridiculous thoughts to bed. Here was the same bone-dry baritone, delivering cyclical songs about rivers, wild animals and mirage-like emotions with minimum fanfare.
A list of adjectives to describe Bill Callahan's writing and music is a list of contradictions. He's penetrating, he's ironic, he's intimate, he's elusive, he's distant and calcified, he's vulnerable and warm-- it's all there, album to album, song to song, and sometimes line to line. His voice is low and his songs are slow, so it's easy to mistake him for being sad.
Although Apocalypse is Bill Callahan's 15th album, his third since abandoning the Smog band name, he remains as slippery as ever. He's called it one of his most personal efforts, yet its outward-looking scope suggests an atypical broadness. Over seven patient, slowly unfolding compositions, he sparsely mixes country, folk and, in one strange instance, funk to examine America, "where everyone's allowed a past they don't care to mention." Gradually, frontier imagery gives way to self-examination.
Right after Barack Obama won the presidential election in 2008, an euphoric high shook up the entire world in ways it had never done before. Though it is statistically proven that the most optimistic candidate is typically the surefire winner, Obama’s victory was a clamoring response after George W. Bush had left a tone of utter hopelessness. It transcended the idea of reducing his victory to numbers – it was Obama’s win as much as ours; instead of doe-eyed stares glued to a television, a determined collective shunned the idea of optimism and actually went to the voting booths to make a difference.
If there’s a lesson to be gleaned from the arc of Bill Callahan’s career, it might as well be this: there is dignity in understatement. Once a 4-track troubadour, Callahan has grown into middle age gracefully, trading in the intimacy of low fidelity for a more refined sense of self-expression. But even as his arrangements have become increasingly ornate — and his production cleaner and sharper than ever before — Callahan has retained his knack for deprecation and quiet, off-kilter observation.
Bill Callahan always seems like the smartest guy in the room. Though his latest albums increasingly feature tried-and-true Americana instrumentation — simply-plucked acoustic guitar, brushed snares, a swell of strings or woodwinds here and there — and though his warm baritone could practically tuck you in at night, he also seems increasingly unknowable. Hiding behind those conventional tools lurks a thoroughly unconventional songwriter, a man with a poet’s eye but a man who also seems to sing to himself.
Bill Callahan’s last album Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle was billed as a personal turn from a songwriter with a reputation for being cantankerously distanced. But when you come down to it, all of his music has seemed to emanate from an inward looking viewpoint – Eagle just felt a little more tender and human, with its warm strings and horns and loudly mixed vocals. It was a superb effort, proof that he was a songwriter who’d survived “maturing”, and had reached the point in his career where his self-referentiality had reached the status of an old familiar personality trait, as endearing as any poetic confession.
One of the most contented and rewarding albums of his career. James Skinner 2011 On Free’s, the oddly titled penultimate song on Bill Callahan’s Apocalypse, the singer ponders what it means to "to be free in bad times… and good". Ultimately (despite some misgivings) he seems to embrace his own freedom, or at least recognise it. Because while this record draws from a sparser palette than 2009’s sun-cracked opus Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle – and even though it’s called Apocalypse, and is the latest from a singer renowned for his subversive outlook – it isn’t a bleak or downcast affair.
With 2009's Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle, Bill Callahan tackled God and country in equal measure, with idyllic ruminations and soft-focus instrumentation that made for the most immediate and inviting work of his career. Following his debut novel, Letters to Emma Bowlcut, an epistolary account of a long-distance relationship, the former Smog songsmith ventures even further out to pasture. Above all else, Apocalypse is an album about identity and rebirth, as Callahan shuffles through a variety of guises (gardener, sailor, songwriter) and styles (the Middle Eastern-accented "Universal Applicant") in a manner not unlike Sam Beam on Iron & Wine's recent Kiss Each Other Clean.