Bill Callahan – Dream River
Released: September 17, 2013
Producer: Bill Callahan
Genre: Lo-Fi, Alternative Country, Folk, Indie
01 The Sing
02 Javelin Unlanding
03 Small Plane
05 Ride My Arrow
06 Summer Painter
08 Winter Road
Usually, I’m not a fan of country music. But when it comes to Bill Callahan, not only me, but everyone should make an exception. His unique blend of folk, country and lo-fi music is something to behold. From the minute this album’s first track starts you realize that Bill is in no hurry whatsoever. On “The Sing”, the ballad that opens his warm, weary new album, Dream River, words roll by like cloud formations on a calm day: “Drinking…while sleeping…strangers…unknowingly…keep me company.” Callahan has compared songwriting to an act of carpentry (“There’s this huge block of silence and you carve little bits out of it by making sound”), but never before has one of his records embodied that feeling so richly. Each line on Dream River forms so slowly and deliberately it’s like we’re watching him trying to make this masterpiece out of oak.
Bill Callahan‘s soundscape has always revolved around nature, even under his alias Smog. To him, and many others, nature is a constant reminder of the smallness of human life. His song’s attitude towards that idea and nature itself, can range from the most astounding truths about human existence and truth, to the fact that being a person might be one big giant cosmic joke!
Since 2007’s Woke on a Whaleheart, Callahan seemed to move backwards compared to the rest of the world. And that, in turn, made his songs cling towards the feeling of isolation more and more with each one. In the begining, as Smog, Callahan sounded aggressive and anarchistic. Kind of like an angry teenager that his music is thrashed in opposition to the outside world. Now, a fully grown-up and mature Bill Callahan, seems at peace, contempt and blissfully oblivious to every problem out there. In his own words actually, on his 2011 record, Apocalypse, “I set my watch against the city clock”. That along with a newly, even more oblivious, phrase from this album’s opening track “The Sing”: “The only words I said today was beer… and thank you”.
His previous albums felt almost too complete though, as if he was too tired to continue. But on Dream River Bill Callahan is both aesthetically restless and bold, by saying that he still has a few mountains to climb, a few rivers to cross and a few more songs to sing. A quiet masterpiece, Dream River’s only percussion comes from hand drums and brushes. This quiet and “submission” is also part of the album’s theme: Talking about the power of humans and their effect.
Callahan’s baritone has lowered about an octave; he used to sing through his nose but now his voice (a much richer and more resonant instrument) seems to come direct from the murkiest depths of his lungs. His arrangements have also grown more sparse, and on all fronts he’s learned how to say more with less. One of the many paradoxes in his music is that, by abandoning a method of singing most people would refer to as more “expressive”, he was able to express even more.
Callahan’s learned to use negative space so well that there’s even poetry in the pauses. Take “Summer Painter”, an instant addition to his canon of great songs; for what else can be said of a song that begins, “I painted names on boats…/ For a summer” and then unfurls, slowly and graciously speaking through the mouth of an old timer who has , without question, seen some shit. Callahan’s learned how to use his voice like a camera (“When the hurricane hit some found it suspicious/ That I’d just since left the frame”), and here he’s shooting a wryly funny mock-epic. “Rich man’s folly and poor man’s dream,” he sings, and then pauses for effect, “I painted these.” It’s a masterful little zoom-out, and it only heightens the sense that Callahan’s playing director here, a feeling furthered by guitarist Matt Kinsey’s torrential freak-out when a storm rolls in.
The whole grandeur of the album though is the journey he puts you through. First, questioning the smallness of human life, then mocking it and joking about it at the same time, just to add a bit of flavour, and in the end embracing it. The whole album is one big thought and philosophy that might have came to his as an afternoon epiphany, hence Dream River (dream logic). The album is a testament to simplicity, smallness but also grandness at the same time.
To call Dream River “content” or “serene” feels wrong, because there’s still a pang of longing to it. But in all of this album’s searching, it does bring back one hopeful find: that maybe the closest we can come to the thrill of wilderness is the adventure of being with another person. “I see the true spring is in you,” he sings at one point in the album’s most ambitious song “Spring”, and it might just be the happiest moment on the record. For once he’s not wishing he were an eagle or a tempest or a sunset. He is just Bill Callahan, flying his small plane with a co-pilot by his side, and for the moment at least, that is enough.