Release Date: Apr 14, 2009
Record label: Drag City
Genre(s): Indie, Rock
Smog lifted, Callahan's lively storytelling inspires wonder For two decades, Bill Callahan has been a musical shape-shifter, mostly working under the cloak of his Smog moniker until the release of 2007’s exuberant Woke on a Whaleheart. Continuing undisguised on his latest album, Callahan offers full, round songs of easy beauty that wax and wane around his viscous baritone. On “All Thoughts Are Prey To Some Beast,” electrocution punctuates the narrative progression, the song’s intimations exerting a surprising gravity.
"I used to be darker/ Then I got lighter/ Then I got dark again." With these three simple lines from "Jim Cain", the opening track of his lovelorn new album, the always-succinct Bill Callahan sums up his tempestuous musical trajectory. For those of you keeping score at home, "darker" seems to refer to most of his output as Smog, when his songwriting often succumbed to the weary dread his dead-planet of a voice exudes like gravity. The lightening occurred over the course of A River Ain't Too Much to Love, his final record as Smog, and Woke on a Whaleheart, his first post-Smog effort.
"Love is the king of the beasts," Bill Callahan intones, morosely, "and when it gets hungry it must kill to eat." While the dewy-eyed mood of his last album, Woke on a Whaleheart, suggested Callahan's romantic entanglement with Joanna Newsom had turned his brain to mush, this miraculous return to form finds the artist formerly known as Smog losing his girl, but rediscovering his mojo. .
“I started telling the story without knowing the end,” Bill Callahan intones on “Jim Cain”, setting the table for Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle, the second album to bear the given name of the artist formerly known as Smog. It’s a line whose implications pervade the rest of the record both in theme and sound: drifting, questioning, grasping at the fleeting and unknowable. After the pop and gospel touches that gave an edgy momentum to 2007’s Woke on a Whaleheart, Callahan reverts back to a style more distinctively his, that of patiently swaying compositions that unfold at their leisure, this time with the added treat of lush string and brass arrangements.
While Callahan's songs are characteristically simple: the way they are recorded is relatively more complex. Things are not so shambolic; they are carefully measured, tempered, and sequenced. Songs such as "All Thoughts Are Prey to Some Beast," are based on two-chord vamps, and Callahan's voice does nothing to disguise itself as his lines are short, clipped, and shorn of unnecessary verbiage.
There are certain holy cows of American Indie that can be guaranteed to get, at worst, good reviews for their records. Will Oldham is one (with exceptions), the Silver Jews were, until their recent disbandment, another. You can probably add Bill Callahan to that list as well. In his former incarnation as Smog, and his recent rebirth as just plain ol’ Bill, he released a unbroken string of beautiful albums, from the sombre confidence of Knock Knock, to Supper’s hope-filled folk, to A River Ain’t Too Much Too Love’s downright profundity.
Sometimes, a change of scenery can make all the difference. Usually, it takes that shock of alteration, that feeling of being a fish out of water, to trigger something. Well, what happens when it’s a return to your old stomping grounds? For Bill Callahan — someone who has prided himself on delivering music at its most sincere level-moving and recording music back in Texas was just the trick.
For 20 years, Bill Callahan has been perfecting the art of hiding in plain sight. In one sense his discography reads like a prolonged coming-out party. While the earliest records reveled in concealment – clattering chords, clipped vocals, and cloaks of tape hiss – the more recent movement has been in the direction of forthrightness. The arrangements have grown more streamlined, the deadpan baritone is way out in front, and the first-person is frequently wielded.
Horses, trees, and birds surround Bill Callahan on his 14th LP. The adopted Texan's gone on a vision quest, and on opener "Jim Cain," he sums it up: "I used to be darker, then I got lighter, then I got dark again." 2007's stellar Woke on a Whaleheart found him miles from Smog's lo-fi folk prophesies, the music revived, almost jubilant. Eagle's halfway there but sounds preoccupied, his stoic baritone never giving too much away.