Bill Callahan - Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle (Drag City, 2009)
From Smog to his own name via a set of confounding parentheses, the moniker may have changed, but Bill Callahan’s musical and lyrical oeuvre has remained resolute. Perhaps ‘Woke On A Whaleheart’ presented Callahan at his least mordant and most breezy, but his light, conversational vocal style handles either mood with a similar dispassionate gaze. Even when he’s at his warmest, there’s a chilly hint of irony waiting to break through. He puts it rather starkly himself on ‘Jim Cain’, the opening song here when he sings ‘I used to be darker, then I got lighter, then I got dark again’.
‘Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle’ makes listening (and by extension judging) a little easier by virtue of placing Callahan’s voice in some surprisingly novel contexts. The main reason for this lies in the orchestrations of Brian Beattie, which somehow manage to incorporate strings and horns without sounding at all extravagant or excessive. It makes for a lusher, more involving sound but one that somehow manages to retain the confrontational minimalism of Callahan’s boldest writing. Every instrument, even the drum kit, seems to be played with a refreshing lightness of touch. Callahan himself has mentioned Jimmy Webb, and a less schmaltzy Burt Bacharach might also be a valid reference point. There’s something in Callahan’s light, slippery vocal style that in this context reminds me most clearly of the wonderful first Bill Fay album.
Grammatical quandary of its title notwithstanding, this might be one of Callahan’s most direct and appealing records to date. Often caricatured as a miserabilist or a misanthrope, Callahan often seems to be a little more complex and enigmatic than such stereotyping implies. This new album is for the most part calm, peaceful and contemplative, sometimes disarmingly so. It presents an intriguing side-step after the occasional forthright joviality of ‘..Whaleheart’. If there’s a bridging song between the two album, it might be the lovely ‘Sycamore’, where Callahan’s deep vocal sounded ponderous and calm, floating above a serene musical backdrop.
Its closest relation here is ‘The Wind and The Dove’, a beautiful melody which Callahan characteristically leaves understated.
The album is full of subtleties that expand Callahan’s musical vocabulary quite considerably. One of the best songs is ‘Eid Ma Clackshaw’ (no doubt there’s an explanation for the title somewhere), which pits slightly swung vocal phrasing from Callahan against an insistent crotchet rhythm. It sounds peculiarly rigid, in an interesting way. ‘Too Many Birds’ is both simpler and prettier – one of the most beautiful moments on a lush, affecting album – but it also draws a lot of its impact from Callahan’s attempt to protract certain lines whilst squeezing in others. Those that admire the more austere Callahan should be satiated with the defiantly skeletal ‘Rococo Zephyr’ although even this seems less agitated and more assured than past efforts.
Callahan continues his bestial preoccupations here, with plenty of reference to both birds and beasts. On ‘Eid Ma Clackshaw’ love is the beast with a hunger that cannot be tamed. Even his song titles further this line of thought, with ‘All Thoughts Are Prey To Some Beast’ teetering on the brink of self parody. Musically, it’s excellent, with its early eerie calm gradually giving way to intensifying menace. For all the lushness in the arrangements, there’s still a lingering nastiness throughout the album, with motorik rhythms contrasting with Callahan’s delivery.
This unusual hybrid of calm and storm, peace and violence is every bit as complicated and confusing as life experience can so often be. In its apparent paradoxes, it emerges as one of Callahan’s most confident and assured albums. Here, he’s both as graceful and as predatory as the eagle he desires to be.