Review: Bill Callahan ‘Apocalypse’
Bill Callahan has been recording music since the late 1980s. Up until recently, Callahan released his music under the name Smog (and sometimes, confusingly, under the name (Smog)), but three albums ago he switched simply to Bill Callahan. The change in moniker also signaled a change in sound. Though there were many phases to Callahan’s as-Smog career––the experimental noise and classic lo-fi sadness of his work during early and middle 1990s, the beautiful ballads of late 90s’ how-am-I-doing-on-time era, the more straight forward guitar rock of his (Smog) days––it is under his birth name that Callahan’s sound and subject matter has changed the most.
His last album as (Smog), 2005’s A River Ain’t Too Much To Love, showed glimpses of what was to come: a pluckier, almost country sound, a much deeper and richer voice, eloquent but outdoorsy poetry––all focused outward instead of in. His first album released as Bill Callahan was 2007’s Woke On a Whaleheart. It has a sort of alone in a bar quality to it. It sounds like something Lou Reed might make if he got really into country music. Here, too, the songs are turned outward, examining the world and the nature around us all. On “From the Rivers To the Oceans,” for example, he sings: “Well, I could tell you about the river/ or we could just get in.” Next came 2009’s lush and nearly perfectSometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle. The album exists almost entirely in nature; it is struck through with wonder-filled lines like: “I started out in search of ordinary things/ like how could a wave possibly be” and “It used to be lighter/ then it got darker/ then it got light again.” This natural wonder is so thick and so prevalent throughout the album, that it’s almost difficult to grab onto any specific theme other than fascination.
Apocalypse, the third Bill Callahan album released under the name Bill Callahan, then, is the deft continuation of this theme of natural, outward-looking dusty-trail music Callahan has so calmly and satisfyingly grown comfortable with. But Apocalypse is not about nature or the world at large, Apocalypse is about America. Drag City, the record label Bill Callahan has recorded with since 1992––and who’s importance to his career cannot be underestimated––says thatApocalypse is “A mirror held up to the self and then turned around to the world. This record makes us wonder what has really happened in the last 100 years. And what will happen in the next 10. The soul of your country called and left you a message. Seven messages.” While there is obviously much of Drag City’s earnestly ironic fuck-you humor in that description, it is, of course, exactly right. Apocalypse is about this country. About how great it is, about how strange it is, about how free and huge and uncertain it is.
Sonically, Apocalypse is relatively sparse. It has a stripped down live band sound to it. The first half sounds darker, more chaotic; the second half is lighter, airier, more hopeful. In the first song, “Drover,” Callahan’s cattle driver narrator warns: “One thing about this wild, wild country/ it takes a strong, strong/ it breaks a strong, strong line.” It’s a great country, it’s a hard country. From there, he is riding out. Over crunching guitar and one drum beat, “America!” describes these feelings more explicitly: “America you are so grand and golden/ oh I wish I was deep in America tonight.” Then, after listing conflict after conflict––“Afghanistan! Vietnam! Iran! Native American!”––Callahan reminds those of us who don’t remember, “everyone’s allowed a past they don’t care to mention.” The twinkling and flute-y “Universal Applicant” floats and floats as Callahan narrates his bizarre journey from a “buffalo’s chest” to a boat. He’s tied up, gets free, and fires a flare up––“ffff poohh.” Well, the flare burned and fell and the boat burned as well. As he’s sinking, we get another list, a list perfectly summing up America, Americans: “And the punk/ and the lunk/ and the drunk /and the skunk/ and the hunk/ and the monk in me/ all sunk.” Then the album lightens. There is “Riding For the Feeling”, about, well, riding for the feeling. Trying. What “the feeling” actually is up to anyone, up to America. In “Free’s,” the narrator wonders about the difference between being free and belonging to the free. This simple yet odd distinction opens up a gaping hole in the very idea of freedom. It’s strange.
“One Fine Morning,” the last song on Apocalypse, is one of the most beautiful songs Callahan has ever written––and easily the most beautiful of the year. A close relative to Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle’s gorgeous and epic 9-minute closer “Faith/Void,” “One Fine Morning” manages to summarize the album, Callahan’s career, and our country. Over slow strumming, soft clangs, and rich piano chords, Callahan speak-sings a tale of (metaphorical? personal?) apocalyptic worry and wonder, finally asking, “When the earth turns cold and the earth turns black/ Will I feel you riding on my back?” But the final lyric in the song––the final lyric on the album¬–is a surprise, and one that now and forever will send chills up my spine: “DC 4-5-0.” Drag City 450. Apocalypse’s catalog number; Drag City’s 450th release; Bill Callahan’s 14th album on Drag City. He repeats it twice, seeming at once like a joke and also the heaviest and most emotional thing he could possibly say.