Secret Meeting score: 94
by Martin Ramsbottom
“Spend a night with an owl and you’ll see more blood than sleep,” asserted the always enigmatic, sometimes obtuse, Bill Callahan to Brian Howe in a Pitchfork review back in 2007 regarding Smog’s lyrical themes of anti-socialism and misogyny. Woven into the very fabric of the North American songwriter’s art and personality, connection to the land and nature is innate. As far back as 1996, on the track, I Break Horses, Callahan was penning pastoral imagery like ‘…the water looked like tarnished gold/I rode out on a broken horse/Who told me she’d never felt so old…At first her warmth felt good between my legs/Living, breathing, heart-beating flesh’ – a track he described as having wrote to help a friend understand the emptiness felt after a one-night stand never returned her calls. By balancing the banality of human experience against a Steinbeckian symbolism, Callahan has been able to demonstrate dexterity for language rooted in a fervent naturalism, while also making a shrewd comment on the human condition.
His art has also imitated his life. Suffering a stasis and claustrophobia in Chicago, Callahan returned to a rural backdrop. Instead of his childhood Maryland home, this time it was the outskirts of Austin, Texas which he affirmed to Mojo in 2011 that gave him “…a whole new perspective. It all makes sense.” He has remained and recorded there ever since A River Ain’t Too Much To Love. Forced to release that record under his Smog moniker, despite his protestations, it was his first overtly naturalistic record that introduced key lyrical themes of the river and flight, pared down from earlier Smog albums and reliant on easy melodies and spare, acoustic strumming. After the dissolution of Callahan’s relationship to songwriter Joanna Newsom and his new elusive Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer decampment, he was able to evolve into a songwriter who could harness natural imagery to philosophise on the nature of existence, the passage of time, and human connection to the earth through two flesh and bones records in 2007 and 2009, before the haunting and skeletal Apocalypse in 2011 stripped away the corpse.
In the fall of 2013, after a long gestation period, Bill Callahan released Dream River- recorded at Cacophony Records on the dusty banks of the Colorado River after a brief removal to the sprawling Sonic Ranch on the Texas/Mexico border for Apocalypse. As human and social connections have been saturated with text and image through technological advancement in the modern world, Callahan had moved to a contrary flow, challenging himself thematically and schematically. On Dream River, he had learnt how to say more with less- a testament to the use of his singular baritone to abandon traditional expressiveness and use it as a tool to carve a multitude of meaning into his lyrics through inflection and the texture of the accompaniment. Schematically, it was bold new ground for Callahan to write a plainly romantic record on the power of human connectedness built into the concept of a dream sequence. Yet the dominant theme is a reverent naturalism- a homage to gaia and an invocation of the beauty and violence of the natural world rooted in a motif of timelessness in nature to characterise the smallness of human life, the river. Experience will tell any listener tuned in to the career of Bill Callahan, or Smog, that the narrative is usually multi-faceted, and Dream River’s strongest message is if the circadian cycle in humans, or the delicate systems in nature are broken through human interruption, the consequences are often malevolent. A prescient message considering the designation of the Anthropocene in 2016.
The opening track, The Sing, begins with the narrator drinking in a hotel bar while the other guests sleep. Chojo Jacques’ fiddle ornately grounds the narrative to a bright present of human reality. ‘The only words I’ve said today are beer and thank you’, centre this narrative as deeply existential and Sisyphean in nature- the narrator as Mersault in Albert Camus’ The Outsider. Each incantation of ‘beer’ and ‘thank you’ is a cosmic mantra, holding a different inflection until the words are rendered meaningless. There are bursts of accompaniment as Matt Kinsey enters, picking away, that dissipate into the reassuring levity of Thor Harris’ claves. For all the modesty and earthiness of his vocal performance, the line ‘I’ve got limitations/Like Marvin Gaye’, which harkens back to a deadpan charisma of his acerbic Smog years, finds Callahan absolving himself of previous relationships and embracing the new.
At the end of The Sing, the dream sequence becomes linked to the concept of flight and the wind in the alliterative line, ‘Until the wind finds something to ping/Or the pinging thing finds the wind’, harnessed by the woodwind instrumentation of Beth Galiger’s flute. Javelin Unlanding continues the theme of flight but the levity has gone to be punctuated by an undercurrent of foreboding. The metaphor of the javelin unlanding and not following the trajectory determined by gravity finds Callahan alluding to the wrath of a planet out of its natural cycle- ‘Bam bam bam!/The Earth off its axis/The first draft’s in ashes/smeared on our faces’. In this post-apocalyptic natural scene, Callahan’s baritone has a shamanic melodiousness as he reflects on the minimalism of human connectedness, of human contact in ‘Laying all twisted together and exposed/like roots on a river bank’ and the face of his lover in spite of this destruction, ‘you looked so peaceful it scared me’ is haunting.
The destruction and renewal cycle is consolidated in the weightless beauty of the standout track, Small Plane. Callahan once described his songwriting process in a 2007 Pitchfork review as a “…huge block of silence and you carve little bits out of it by making sound” and nowhere in his career has this process been more demonstrable than on this track. His guitar picking is ethereal as the sound drifts in and out reflecting the wind and flight motif. The breeziness and lyrical thrust are a testament to his relationship to photographer Hanly Banks who had photographed Callahan extensively for the Apocalypse record. The natural calmness and equilibrium is short-lived. Matt Kinsey’s jarring guitar returns on Spring, juxtaposed with Beth Galiger’s flute to paint a Miltonesque scene as Callahan relates a contrary season that instead of being abundant with life he proclaims, ‘We call it Spring though things are dying’. In his epic poem The Wasteland, T.S. Eliot opened with ‘April is the cruellest month, breeding/lilacs out of the dead land’. Where in 1922 Eliot was finding oddity in life feeding from death, and of seasonal, cyclical change, in 2013, Callahan was finding only a scene of death and a disruption to that cycle- ‘Spring looks bad lately/like death warmed over’. Within this dreamscape, Callahan is able to paint a colourful picture of a post-apocalyptic world that global warming could create and in doing so produces a vivid aphorism for the finality and absurdity of the human condition in ‘All I want to do is to make love to you/in the fertile dirt.’
Matt Kinsey who had worked on Callahan’s previous record Apocalypse is the true anchor of Dream River and his development is clear on this record in framing the primacy of Callahan’s naturalism. On the album’s centrepiece, the fever dream of Summer Painter, Kinsey’s descent into sonic chaos to evoke the hurricane meets Callahan’s storytelling at its pinnacle. Yet all the other accompaniment is necessary in order to colour the true landscape of this track and the record as a whole where Thor Harris’ congas and clave, and Galiger’s flute, representative of the calm and quietude after the storm, are equally impressive. The dream is finally broken and reality restored in the penultimate track Seagull, ‘How long have I been gone/How long have I been travelling/How tired have I been and/How far have I got/In circling’. Thor Harris has exchanged his various percussive equipment for a standard drum-kit, and the clamour of waking reality is formulated in full accompaniment as the narrator is back in the barroom.
After the dream, the coda of the record is the magnificent minimalism of human life in the face of nature. Its conviction is an optimistic one as framed by album closer Winter Road. On The Wheel from his first record under his own name, Callahan sung, ‘The wheel has turned one full circle…To make my home Lord/In a stable spoke Lord/Inside a turning wheel would be good.’ It is clear Callahan believes in the power of natural cycles. On Dream River it is the strongest motif which is comparable to the Shakespearean wheel of fortune. Like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s test of human intelligence to hold two opposing ideas at the same time, the listener will find that despite the destruction wrought by a cycle out of kilter, often in our world a disharmony caused by man, album closer Winter Road ends with an optimism for the human condition- ‘I have learned when things are beautiful/To just keep on/Just keep on’.
This is the cartography of a soul lightened by new vigour and freeing himself from the chrysalis of his career to date, and an often overlooked figure that must surely rank high in the canon of contemporary North American songwriters. In an article for Spin in 2013, Callahan likened Dream River to “the last record you could listen to at the end of the day, before you go to bed, around midnight”. And, for all its impending doom at the hands of an omnipotent natural world, the power of human connectedness produces a soporific calmness to it. Like the famously pessimistic poet Philip Larkin once penned at the end of An Arundel Tomb, ‘what survives of us is love.’