There is a sense of involuntary awe when exploring the peaks and shadowy recesses of Bill Callahan’s music. In fact, it’s this idea of the personal discovery of significant moments on his albums that has helped to elevate Callahan to his position among indie rock royalty — that and his extensive and damn fine discography. His music isn’t altogether showy in the most conventional sense, but it is surprising in continually unpredictable ways. Lyrically, he can twist phrases and syllables into positions that would normally never be found in nature, but under his meticulous direction, everything fits together perfectly – not one letter is misused or out of place. And with just the basics of a musical foundation to support him, his records explore the detailed minutiae of life and the immaculate wonders that often escape our notice. But his music can also veer into darker territory, where the lines between what we should do and what our own innate nature insists that we do are often muddied and unclear. But if there is a constant in his back catalog of recordings, it’s that each song he records feels deliberate and painstakingly realized.
His records are also wonderfully inclusive works of art; what’s so fascinating is that his music can mean so many different things to so many different people. Every single Bill Callahan record has the tendency to sound completely personal to the person hearing it. There’s a propensity (and frankly, you’d be forgiven the inclination) to gravitate toward specific moments on his albums — such as a sly lyrical reference, a syllable inverted, or a melody that seems drawn from the air — and forget what completely cohesive statements his LPs tend to be. It’s a testament to his abilities as a songwriter that his songs feel so vast and all-encompassing but also so connective and communal.
On his latest collection of songs, the absolutely gorgeous Dream River, Callahan has once again dipped his instruments into a shared collective consciousness, filled with hope, love, and a few solitary strands of uncertainty. Maybe even more so than on his last few records, he seems the master of saying things without ever actually saying them. There are canyon-sized gulfs that litter these songs — acres of negative space that seems content to hover, awaiting whatever musical gifts Callahan is willing to part with. We expect much from the man who would be Smog, and he gladly rises to those weighted expectations.
We’re lead into the album by the shuffling country beat and downtrodden lyrical admission that he — whoever he is, possibly Callahan or maybe someone completely unrelated — is “drinking while sleeping strangers / unknowingly keep me company in the hotel bar.” This opening track, “The Sing,” is a rollicking song full of bitter recrimination, self-aware deprecation, and no small amount of regret. In his confession that the only two things he’s said today were “beer” and “thank you,” Callahan paints a knowingly sympathetic portrait of a man who’s seen far too many things, in far too few years. Blending intricate fretwork with bouts of melancholy strings, the song slips back and forth between a curious joviality and pitch black humor. On “Javelin Unlanding,” Callahan busts out the electric guitar chops — such as they are — and some rather non-pensive flute work which orbit around one of his best melodies in years. Between the spiraling and slowly disintegrating waves of submerged distortion, heavily echoed vocals, and woodwind trickery straight out of a Fairport Convention song, he shows that he doesn’t always come down on the side of caution, as the first line “you looked like world-wide armageddon while you slept” certainly creates a seemingly hostile atmosphere for the music to develop within.
But he never dwells too long on the insufferably maudlin. On “Small Planes,” he is simply happy, with all the ridiculously complicated feelings and experiences which that emotion often brings. But again, it’s the small moments — the details here that matter most. There is a line where he says “sometimes you sleep while I take us home / that’s when I know we really have a home,” and there is so much spoken and unspoken in those 17 words that could never be expressed any other way. His repeated refrain of “I really am a lucky man” that comes without any sense of back-handed sentimentality is devastating in its abject simplicity. And that’s exactly how Dream River manages to coax these significant moments out of the ordinary experiences of life. Callahan’s lack of overt ridicule and embarrassment of earnestness can be a little disarming at times, but he never trips over himself in his attempt to relay these ideas and thoughts.
Other tracks, such as the flute-led “Summer Painter” and oddly propulsive “Ride My Arrow,” are microcosms of Callahan’s innate ability to tell stories which resonate so thoroughly with his listeners. The music can’t be said to be overly complicated nor precisely lethargic — only exactly what it needs to be. There is a confidence here that smacks of experience and a life hard-fought and won. It’s not simply a matter of making sure each piece of Dream River‘s puzzle finds its way into each song but why they’re placed in their relative positions and what meaning exists, if any. There’s a moment on “Seagull” where Callahan slurs the word “barroom” and keeps repeating it until the meaning is lost, and it simply becomes a melodic extension of the music itself.
As tranquil at times as an undisturbed inlet and as turbulent as its titular river at others, this album exists to be discovered, to be known and to be obsessed over — much like Callahan himself. There are so many divergent paths to take and so many depths to explore here that multiple listens are a given and implicitly expected. Dream River is as evocative a record as he’s ever made and that’s saying quite a lot. Lyrically, he pries open long forgotten stories and juxtaposes them against simple tales of love and the need for someone with whom you can attempt to combat the daunting progression of time. Drawing back each song one pristine layer at a time, we’re left with a beating, thumping heart — battered and bruised to be sure, but confident in its own direction.