Music Reviews
Dream River

Bill Callahan Dream River

(Drag City) Rating - 9/10

Bill Callahan’s last album as Smog was titled A River Ain't Too Much to Love. Looking back at it, it seems a fitting transition to this second stage of his career. Rustic images of mountains, riverbeds, and desert plains seem to entrance him at every turn and, by this point, they’ve sort of integrated themselves into his waking subconscious. Dream River surely indicates this, existing as both a place and a concept -- a sort of meditative plateau that can only be reached after exploring the furthest points of our small, blue terrestrial dwelling via astral projection. Or at least that’s how I’d like to imagine Callahan -- perched atop a rock at the summit of some eastern mountain, contemplating life, death, and all the possibilities in between. From the beginning, Dream River at once reaffirms and dispels that thought, setting Callahan in a no-name bar, sipping a beer, watching the regulars come in and out, yet reaching outward from his humble habitat toward the infinite.

“The free soul is rare, but you know it when you see it - basically because you feel good, very good, when you are near or with them.” -- Charles Bukowski

“I have learned when things are beautiful / To just keep on.” -- Bill Callahan

There’s a certain lightness found in the music of Dream River, a feeling that its aural components were carried to Callahan like a tumbleweed floating upon a distant gust. At times, it seems fair to call Callahan a folkie, but only in the superficial sense that he plays acoustic guitar and sings. Javelin Unlanding is about as “folkie” as he gets these days -- an airy raga laced with flutes, bongos, and cascades of mid-western twang that connote a peace only found when isolated amongst the natural world. However, what differs Callahan from most is the way he meticulously constructs his instrumentation to compliment the thematic ebb and flow of his lyrics, bringing his words to life with sonic artistry. For instance, the swell of sparse fiddle melodies, light guitar strumming, and distant leads on Winter Road echo the drama and imagistic resonance of each consecutive lyric.

Of course, Callahan also uses his arrangement skills to provoke a more jarring response from his listeners, too. The uneven combination of slow, quiet strumming, light flute, and doom-laden, wah-wah guitar on Spring suggests a great struggle between serenity and chaos -- making the song both emotionally introspective and explosive by implication. But Callahan knows when to hold back as well, providing an understated, slow groove on Ride My Arrow that’s just as effective in sustaining a similar simmering tension. Though, Callahan never quite allows Arrow to reach a point of cathartic abandon as he does on Spring. Instead, he opts to preserve its ominous tone, allowing it to spill over into the subsequent track Summer Painter and resolve itself there.

“An intellectual says a simple thing in a hard way. An artist says a hard thing in a simple way.” -- Charles Bukowski

“I’m giving praise in a quiet way / Like a church that’s far away” -- Bill Callahan

I don’t think there’s any doubting that Callahan is a modern master of lyric, a man of letters who can be mentioned in the same breath as essential writers like Cohen, Nilsson, or even Dylan. Like sparse, calligraphic brush strokes on sand, Callahan is able to engage on both a verbal and uniquely visual level. Lines like “The wind is pushing the clouds along / out of sight / a power is putting them away / a power that moves things neurotically / Like a widow with a rosary” seem to float from Callahan’s baritone voice and wrap themselves around you -- vividly enough that you could just about feel that powerful breeze brush against your cheek as daylight dwindles. Even the way he can bend a phrase lends a powerful ambiguity to his writing. Short, pensive breaths separates the line “I never knew who I truly was / Workin’ for anyway,” leaving a sentiment that’s just abstruse enough to provoke deep introspection. 

On Javelin Unlanding, Callahan sings of the metaphysical, “Don’t die just yet / And leave me / Alone alone alone / On this journey / ’round the sun.” It’s the way he’s able to touch on such abstract concepts -- uncertainty, love, death, fear, exaltation, transcendence -- through such short, simple phrases that’s truly remarkable. But Callahan isn’t always so self-serious. Occasionally, he’s able to step back from his dusty surroundings and imbue even the most banal aspects of his day with an understated sense of humor. “The only words I’ve said today are ‘beer’ / And ‘thank you’” he mutters on The Sing, simultaneously content and disappointed with his lack of vivacity. But in capturing the subtlety of his own minute gestures, even these tired, self-reflexive observations feel amazingly profound.

“What matters most is how well you walk through the fire” -- Charles Bukwoski

Dream River is probably as evocative a record as Callahan has ever made, and that really is saying a great deal when considering his extensive back catalog. There are so many minuscule lyrical subtleties to take in, so much emotional depth to explore here that multiple listens are a given and almost utterly unavoidable. On his previous effort, Apocalypse, Callahan travelled outward across the contemporary American landscape. On Dream River, he doesn’t seem bound by any borders, geographic or temporal, he’s simply tapped into concepts that are distinctly human -- relatable on every level, to any person, during any set time period. “I’ve got limitations,” Callahan reassures us on The Sing. I don’t see them.