Caught by the River

Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle

24th April 2009


Seemingly it’s not just me that’s been obsessed by birds recently, it’s everyone. Scanning the Guardian Review section a few weekends ago, I was intrigued to read about something called “the Springwatch effect”. Apparently it’s responsible for a forest of bird twitching literature and is finally making ornithology hip.

I certainly think I’ve fallen victim to it – albeit inadvertently. I’ve just finished Tim Birkhead’s The Wisdom Of Birds (key findings: Alain Delon’s assassin is right to keep a bullfinch in his flat in ‘Le Samourai’ – they hate strangers – and birds absorb light through their skulls, so can tell what time of day it is with their eyes shut – amazing!) and followed it with William Fiennes’ beautifully-sculpted travelogue The Snow Geese. Essentially I realised I’d turned into Jarvis Cocker circa ‘We Love Life’.

Anyway, while gripped by this vaguely pantheistic revelry, Jeff hit me up with the new Bill Callahan record. I have to say I was pretty sceptical. I’d parted company with Callahan and his previous band Smog over six years ago while I was still a music journalist. It wasn’t that I hadn’t occasionally enjoyed his tar-black worldview – Smog’s ‘Kicking A Couple Around’ EP makes Lou Reed’s ‘Berlin’ sound like Abba – it was just that Smog and Callahan were so beloved by a certain kind of unworkable writer (the ones who can’t understand why Pavement aren’t as big as The Beatles) that I just tuned out.

‘Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle’, though, is an astonishingly beautiful record – and more importantly one that’s totally in synch with my current Springwatch-warped psyche. It’s Callahan’s second solo album post-Smog, and its parched, delicate orchestration makes it sound like a heat haze rising over a plain.

At heart, this record is a continued exploration of the inside of Bill Callahan’s head, but done so – lyrically at least – through the prism of the natural world. Bees fly jauntily past, blackbirds seek a place to land, river are still and doves and zephyrs are never far way. The atmosphere throughout is one of deadpan bucolic contemplation, helped by the gentle ebb and flow of the music around it.

It’s definitely one of the best records of the year to date – alongside The Horrors and Doves – but more than that it seems like an absolutely quintessential Caught By The River experience. Best listened to on a riverbank on a serene afternoon, bird song in the distance.

James Oldham