I’ve found it helps, when listening to the music of the artist formerly known as Smog, Bill Callahan, to picture him sitting in a rocking chair on his front porch, guitar in his lap, beer in hand, looking out over fields to the mountains beyond, just reflecting; on his achievements and his adventures, his loves and losses, but also on matters less universal. Callahan’s greatest strength as a songwriter has always been his ability to take the most general of observations – about the weather, the way a room is decorated, the lines around the corners of a person’s eyes – and make the kind of connections nobody else would ever see seem blindingly obvious, and on his latest long-player Dream River his eye for detail is as keen as ever. Here, in that inimitable sing-song baritone mumble, he likens the hidden “power… pushing the clouds along” to a neurotic, rosary-fingering widow and compares himself to a seagull enticed off the waves by the call of a warm barroom; on “The Sing” a passing locomotive’s whistle becomes a “whale song/ To a train long gone” whilst “Ride My Arrow” finds the singer summing life up, simply, as “chaos neatly denied“. It’s just as engrossing – albeit in a less surreal manner – when Callahan goes into specifics, ruminating on a summer spent painting names on boats, dropping in seemingly trivial tidbits (“For luck you keep the same first letter/ You don’t want bad luck at sea“) like a novelist setting the scene; recalling a Donald Sutherland interview heard on his truck radio, “drinking while sleeping strangers unknowingly keep (him) company in the hotel bar“. Most personal of all is “Small Plane”, where Callahan sweetly equates being in a loving, trusting relationship to handing over the controls of the titular vessel, putting his life in the hands of another without fear and arriving at the realisation that he really is “a lucky man“. It’s the happiest and most at ease the famously prickly artist has ever seemed on record, and – although it opens with an account of a day when the only words our hero said out loud were “beer” and “thank you” – Dream River on the whole benefits greatly from Callahan’s newly relaxed outlook, with jazzy, meandering arrangements (flutes, fiddle, hand drums) that recall nothing so much as Van Morrison’s cosmic classic Astral Weeks serving to heighten to soulful, almost sensual vibe. Indeed, with his tendency towards vamping – repeating himself as though he’s thinking out loud, stalling for time whilst trying to decide how to wrap up a particular train of thought – Callahan even sounds like Van The Man; a compliment, whether or not he would choose to take it. As if to prove that point, as closing track “Winter Road” draws to a close, Callahan informs us that he has learned, “when things are beautiful/ To just keep on… / Just keep on…” The conclusion never comes, and you realise that is the conclusion: just keep on. Let’s just hope Callahan continues to take his own advice.
Dream River is out September 17 via Drag City; watch Callahan perform “Small Plane” in a NYC community garden below.
Welcome to the world Florence Elizabeth West; as you can see, it can be a beautiful place.