Music Reviews

Bill Callahan Apocalypse

(Drag City) Rating - 8/10

Right after Barack Obama won the presidential election in 2008, an euphoric high shook up the entire world in ways it had never done before. Though it is statistically proven that the most optimistic candidate is typically the surefire winner, Obama’s victory was a clamoring response after George W. Bush had left a tone of utter hopelessness. It transcended the idea of reducing his victory to numbers – it was Obama’s win as much as ours; instead of doe-eyed stares glued to a television, a determined collective shunned the idea of optimism and actually went to the voting booths to make a difference. In more bloated terms, it wouldn’t be far off to conclude that some thought the United States was on the verge of catastrophe.

Bill Callahan would adopt a first person voice when speaking about how Obama raised the confidence of Americans as a whole. He spoke as a defender, yet acknowledged that the reputation of his beloved nation was tarnished. He still has a reason to believe that America is still worth living and fighting for, and would continue to express it to his heart’s content. In America!, Callahan is expectedly cryptic, even solemn in his approach. Speaking from a foreign land, he ruminates on musicians who’ve served in tactical operations, even referring to them by their former titles. He ends the thought reading the words, I never served my country; this isn’t a regret but a mark of respect, as he goes about wanting his next destination to be that grand and golden place he repeatedly calls America.

Of course, with Callahan, you can’t never really tell what he truly feels. Always a step ahead of open mic poets, Callahan coils his contradictions as tight as possible, but further listening always loosens his intermittent thought process. There are moments of unswerving sincerity, like in Drover, in which he narrates the tale of a strong-willed workingman driving the cattle into the valley. But for every enchanting account, there’s always these moments where Callahan speaks with unfiltered frankness. He borders on a messianic complex in Riding for the Feeling, in which Callahan calmly recounts his country singer’s lament on tour with a gentle guitar strum; he goes about how his fans don’t want him to go and how he considers his hotel bed tapes to be his apocalypse, lingering on the memory of those he’ll never see on tour again. Images of tacky concert footage, looking-outside-the-window stares, and journal annotations need not apply.

Callahan continues to be a nature’s poet, painting his imagery with the most carefully detailed observations of the everyday. Contrary to past efforts, his improvisational technique leans almost entirely on the subject of his own self. And even if the slick songwriting of the songs themselves is always the pulse of all his records, that deep baritone always carries the tune with a dominant presence. Callahan sees himself as a cautionary tale  - for someone who’s exposed his past relationships, insecurities, and views on faith with such transparency, it’s daunting to hear how he can evaluate himself as well as he does others. While the moments in which he’s behind the curtain are always the most stimulating, it’s commendable for an artist to nakedly expose himself without second guessing the consequences. Especially for an artist who’s always been awfully reserved when directly asked about his life and work.

Musically, the tracks on Apocalypse breeze with a placid swoon. Callahan, who’s calm and collected all the way through, strums his acoustic guitar with wandering melodies and the occasional R&B tinge. Once again, he tries to achieve resonance with the restraints of limited instrumentation. Besides the muffled guitars and patchy drums in America!, Callahan mostly ties simplicity with lengthened pedal explorations and circling guitar chords. There are times when a flute and the occasional string instrumentation make an appearance, but these are mainly to invigorate those moments when Callahan is at his most rambling. You’d think he took inspiration from Astral Weeks, another record that is known for being recorded in a brief studio session with an improvised spirit.

In Apocalypse, Callahan may refer to the dissipating spirit many have over the current US administration. This is his way of reconnecting with that previous spirit before it’s too late, reassuring the attachment he still holds to his native land. In other ways, Callahan is soul searching the lighter corners of his life and art, trying to find answers to the questions he may have previously dismissed. His apocalypse is very much his own – you just have to listen to those tapes close enough to know the answer.