All this playing with identity is really rather tedious, isn’t it? Following in the pretentious footsteps of Prince and, a more obvious connection, Will Oldham, Bill Callahan has adopted a variety of guises. He started out recording as Smog before rather stubbornly adding parentheses and making the s lower case to become (smog). He has now strangely opted to start using his real name some distance into his career. Aside from the fact that this makes record store managers’ jobs unnecessarily difficult when filing music, what exactly is the change of name meant to signify? Has there been some great change in his songwriting formula? Are there great revelations here that lead to some kind of unmasking or a more intimate, less cynical style? Perhaps (unfairly) he’s become better known as Mr. Joanna Newsom now anyway.
Branding aside, ‘Woke on a Whaleheart’ is his umpteenth album and I have to confess I wasn’t sure I really needed yet another Callahan album in my life. He’s been remarkably consistent, misjudging only with the oblique droning of ‘Rain On Lens’, but his three greatest albums (‘Wild Love’, ‘Knock Knock’ and ‘Supper’) best summarise his main concerns, with everything else simply a bonus. His last album (‘A River Ain’t Too Much To Love’) was dependably good, but didn’t really offer anything fresh or surprising.
After just three listens, I’m already convinced that ‘Woke on a Whaleheart’ is one of those albums reviewers have taken for granted, simply because there’s already a wealth of notable Callahan material out there, and there’ll likely be another one within a couple of years anyway. I suspect the talk of a blunting of his lyrical barbs has been overstated (there might be a line like ‘You bring out the softness in everyone’, but he juxtaposes it with ‘we gather like ravens on a rusty scythe’), but the music has certainly acquired real warmth and attention to detail.
It’s uncharacteristic, given the raw and untamed energy of much of his own music, but perhaps part of the credit for this should go to former Royal Trux guitarist Neil Michael Hagerty, who has been drafted in as producer. It’s also fair to say that this is the most intriguing and expressive group of musicians that Callahan has assembled. The most obvious surprises are provided by Howard Draper’s mournful piano, the unusual backing vocals of Deani Pugh-Flemmings and the neat combination of bass and percussion that underpins the album’s more rhythmic moments.
A handful of the songs stand out among Callahan’s best. ‘Diamond Dancer’ (‘she danced so hard she turned herself into a diamond’) is a sweet and generous song, encapsulated in pithy and concise language, and set to a relentless beat that almost grooves. ‘Night’ begins with Callahan’s hushed vocal set against a lone piano playing a deceptively simple figure slightly reminiscent of REM’s ‘Nightswimming’ – the effect is haunting. There’s also the pleasingly autumnal ‘Sycamore’, with its intertwining guitars, which, to my ears at least, seem slightly out of tune with each other, perhaps intentionally. The all-inclusive closer ‘A Man Needs A Woman or a Man To Be A Man’ emulates the scratchy shuffle of Carl Perkins or Scotty Moore, and features some quite wonderful lyrics. Callahan describes a feminine room, with its ‘legacy of good’ before proceeding to confess that ‘I’m not sure I can uphold it on my own’. The song is brimming with startling firework imagery (‘fireworks are wasted during the day/but I set them off anyway’, ‘and when it’s good and dark/The sky a wet black, like the earth has turned’) and the arrangement swells brilliantly.
Callahan has never been the most melodic of writers, and it’s possible that his half-spoken baritone will remain too much of an acquired taste for the unconverted. Nevertheless, ‘Woke on a Whaleheart’, whilst perhaps more conventional than anything else he’s recorded, is surely in the upper tier of his catalogue – both warm and cerebral, as romantic as it is mordant.