I saw Bill Callahan open for Joanna Newsom in December of 2006, a sold-out show at a 1200-capacity venue in Seattle. The house was pretty much full by the time his set began. Callahan came out and sat alone on stage, singing and playing his songs on a small acoustic guitar while fully 1199 show-goers chatted away with one another. (That’s how it felt, anyway.) Seattle is a talky town but I’ve never, before or since, seen a performer so wholly ignored by as many people as Bill Callahan was that night. Tough crowd, as they say. Pearls before swine. A fan of Callahan and his previous incarnation as the more lo-fi Smog, I wove around and through all of the apparent sociopaths on the main floor and balconies, looking for a perch where I might actually hear him over the roar of their voices, hoping for a better vantage point. And with a little determination I was able to connect with his songs that night. Despite the aggressive indignity of the situation the stoic Callahan played a brilliant set through the noise and didn’t flinch once.
I listened to Callahan’s new album Dream River several times before I began to understand what was going on with it. The spoken lyrics “The only words I said today were beer and thank you” on the opening song, “The Sing,” amused me (so relatable), but at first there was little else for my lazy mind to latch onto. After one time through I wondered if I might not crack the code with this one. In fact, I wondered if there was even a code to crack. (And how many times would I have spun it before moving on if I hadn’t been reviewing it?)
Generally, I would describe Callahan’s music as introverted, deadpan, and minimal, but with a crazy-like-a-fox energy bubbling underneath. He writes guitar-based songs (usually acoustic or clean electric) that feature his rich, measured baritone voice singing precisely written and often opaque lyrics that range from the melancholy to the absurd. The arrangements tend to be minimal as well (although they usually include a variety of instruments, including drums) and seem to be rooted in Americana but without sounding like Americana. While the same can basically be said for Dream River, its tone hit me very differently. His last two studio albums (2009’s Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle and 2011’s Apocalypse) immediately appealed to me as dark and taut, subtly experimental and almost comically distant, while Dream River sounded slack and jammy, plain and direct with little or no ironic distance at all. All of those latter postures were things I’d never noticed on a Callahan or Smog album before, and they struck me, at first, as feeling a little limp.
But then Dream River started to open up to me. I remembered having once read that when reading poetry one should assume that every word in the poem is intended by the poet quite deliberately and should be taken seriously as such, each word being a possible key to unlocking the poem. Of course lyrics are different from poetry, as is music, but Callahan’s songs feel so measured and deliberate that it seems appropriate to approach them this way. And for me, his lyrics have always been the cue for how to interpret everything else on his records. So I went back again to the lyrics, listening carefully, looking for clues, cues.
“Small Plane” was the first song to really suck me in; evocative of the wonder of an evening flying lesson in a Cessna plane, it morphed before my ears into a song about the intimacy and pleasure of sex and trust. I heard a contentment in “Small Plane” that I can’t recall ever hearing in his music before. So I backed up and listened to it again. The contentment was definitely there and the metaphor was nuanced and breathtaking. (And, by the way, who the fuck is capable of writing a song about being content at all, much less one that is as exquisite and moving as “Small Plane”? Bill Callahan is.) So I went looking to see if contentment (and sex, naturally) was a key to unlocking the rest of the record. And guess what I found? A stirring ode to “mortal joy”: how simple and intoxicating it can be, what a relief it is when it comes, and how its limited and fleeting nature make its occasional presence all the more profound.
If you put in the time and dig deeply into any Callahan or Smog record you will be rewarded many times over. Dream River might be my favorite example of that. In my experience a lot of folks aren’t willing to work that hard for music, although some still are. I look forward to many more hours with this one, whether the talkers listen along or not.