Dream River – Bill Callahan (Drag City LP, out now)
Reviewed by Babak Ganjei
The year is 2033; I am on a P&O cruise ship heading towards the Indian Ocean. I had never imagined wanting to go near the Indian Ocean, but now as a 53 year old I finally understand: life is short and only an arrogant fool disregards the world beyond Dalston before his time is up. I’ve pocketed as many cocktail sausages as physically possible from the buffet without looking obvious, and take my seat for the cruise ship band. Without announcement, Bill Callahan in jeans and red cowboy shirt sits down and begins tuning. With his rubbery face he looks like Yul Brynner in Westworld. The difference being not only that his head is full of silver hair and he is not a robot, but that he is clearly aware of his own malfunctions. I brush my hand through my balding scalp and pick a sausage from my pocket. “Ladies and Gentleman…Bill Callahan”…The MC has spoken and the show has begun.
Gently dragging through the waves I see how much sense it makes that he is here on a cruise ship. If in the words of nineteenth century American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson “Life is a journey not a destination”, Bill Callahan has been immersed in the nuances of the trip for a very long time now. The journey need not be epic, there are no Titanics or any other life changing adventures. The journey is the only constant, and with his voice now even lower than in the days when he went under the Smog pseudonym, the bitter humour which cloaked songs such as Dress Sexy For My Funeral has been replaced with an authoritative baritone which simply wants to tell you things. So when on the final song Winter Road from his new album Dream River he sings… “I have learnt that when things are beautiful to just keep on…” You know that Bill is a man who may speak of ‘home’, but will always be compelled to keep moving in the other direction, as slowly as he likes.
“Sleeping while drinking…strangers… unknowingly …keeping me company…” he sings as I brush a cigarette filter off a sausage from my pocket and contemplate offering it to the lady sitting a couple of empty seats to my right. I notice she has a plate on her lap. I throw the sausage down my mouth. Why didn’t I get a plate I think to myself, the buffet is inclusive in the price.
When I first discovered Smog in 1999 with the album Knock Knock, I was a first year art student living in a room the same size as my bed just off Highbury Corner. I had no tv, internet, I didn’t even have a mobile phone, though a friend did buy me a pager to connect me to the social whirlwind I didn’t know yet was coming. I enjoyed the songs the same way I enjoyed the work of visual artist Jeff Koons. These were artists whose work used emotions as raw material, but without presenting with emotion in fake earnestness and instead had almost the stance of the anthropologist. Knock Knock felt like an album of self-protection, there was a distancing as he wrote as both observer and protagonist, which made it hard to know if you wanted to be drawn in. The album’s opening line “Let’s move to the country” on the song of the same name, was both a challenge and a demand for commitment. I took the commitment.
Fourteen years on, and what becomes apparent in the parallel relationship between the work of Bill Callahan and the participating listener is that deep transformations are subtle when they take place over time. Major things have happened to me: a big relationship, a son, a big break up, and yet here I am lying on my back typing and dreaming just a fifteen minute walk from the flat I first listened to him in. Nothing and everything has changed. “I always went wrong in the same place, where the river splits towards the sea” he sings. This is a more plaintive artist than before, but he may have just adjusted his zoom for analysis. The spatial plane of Knock Knock’s minimalist epic Teenage Spaceship has been scaled back to Dream River’s Small Plane. Bill has rejoined the populace, but still observes from above, albeit at a closer distance. Is the downsizing from spaceship to terrestrial air space a suggestion that he’s become aware of his own limitations? The song itself suggests he may be responsible for his own failings, but understands that failing is the material of life. “I’ve got limitations, like Marvin Gaye. Mortal joy…is that way” he sings (The Sing).
Thankfully the humour is still there, and in Javelin Unlanding when he asks, “Don’t die just yet and leave me” it sounds almost like a selfish request. The union of those two words javelin and unlanding highlight Callahan’s simple poetic ability. It puts in my mind a visual of a javelin in reverse pulling itself out of the ground and floating in mid air, to the soundtrack of that hippo which would pop up every time Reginald Perrin’s wife spoke of her mother. There is something in his work that can elicit these responses that doesn’t happen with other songwriters. Callahan is still the showman. “Bar Room Bar Room, barroom barroom” he gags in Seagull. In The Sing, he makes an art form of lyrical delivery. He sings, “the only words I spoke today are beer…and thank you”, then he sings beer”, gives it enough time for a beer to be served and then “thank you”…then “beer…………..thank you”, “beer………………..thank you”. I’ve never waited to be served in a song, there aren’t that many people you’d wait for. But Bill is one of them.
The more you listen to this album the more each note feels deliberate in it’s purpose. Nothing is done for the hell of it on this record. But what else is to be expected from a man who has refused to keep up with the breakneck pace of the world, who still seems to be happy for people to chase him. His work isn’t on Spotify and his career has never seemed to be particularly influenced by what others around him are doing. I expect Dream River will become another chapter in a songbook that is like a small town on a road map, written from above the clouds.
It’s 2033, and Bill Callahan has opened his mouth to sing the words of the final song of his set on this cruise. The time it takes for the words to come from his open mouth is impressively long. I know the song, and have already sung the words in my head, I go to the bar and as I order a beer, I hear the word “beer” come from the PA, as I collect my drink we both say thank you. Finally we are in sync.