Douglas Martin’s Dirty Shoes: The Apocalyptic Beauty of Bill Callahan

Douglas Martin gets down with both types of apocalypse. Let’s cut to the chase: Bill Callahan is a legend. I suppose Bill Callahan the NFL coach is alright, but Bill Callahan the singer/songwriter...
By    April 5, 2011

Douglas Martin gets down with both types of apocalypse.

Let’s cut to the chase: Bill Callahan is a legend. I suppose Bill Callahan the NFL coach is alright, but Bill Callahan the singer/songwriter has spent the past twenty-three years enjoying one of the most storied, outstanding, and aggressively beloved careers in indie music. The lion’s share of that career was as the sole proprietor of Smog, where Callahan explored the terrain of Sad Bastard Indie (“To Be of Use”), Lucky Bastard Indie (“Let’s Move to the Country”), and plain-old Bastard Indie (“Dress Sexy at My Funeral”) with literary flair, emotional resonance, and a sense of humor pitch-black enough to make Dave Chappelle look like Dave Coulier. He’s published a book, had one of his songs (“Cold Blooded Old Times”) featured in High Fidelity— the world’s definitive music nerd quasi-rom-com– and has been romantically linked to both Chan Marshall and Joanna Newsom. When you possess a list of achievements that long, you deserve no less than to be referred to as a champion.

When Callahan ditched the Smog alias for his government name with 2007’s Woke on a Whaleheart, the lushness of his material increased tenfold, containing a newfound sophistication that wasn’t entirely absent from his output as Smog, but what he played definitely wasn’t prioritized over what he wrote. As I mentioned over at my other gig, Callahan’s eponymous work is startlingly consistent, and while there’s a clearly different aesthetic between it and the Smog discography, it’s every bit as remarkable. Apocalypse, his fourteenth studio album, finds Callahan quietly continuing to move forward, taking slow yet important strides toward the kind of longevity rarefied in music these days.

And with longevity comes patience, and Apocalypse is assuredly one of Callahan’s most patient records, with seven songs slowly unfolding for a little over forty minutes. Just like prior effort Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle, the restraint is palpable here, lightly strummed acoustic guitars share face time with tasteful piano lines, lightly tapped drums, and even a flute or two. The word “maturity” could be easily replaced with the word “plague” in the youth-obsessed world of music, where the concept of aging gracefully is about as far from the realm of possibility as Arcade Fire winding down and mellowing out to Devin the Dude and a few joints on their double-decker tour bus or… um… them winding down and mellowing out in general. Callahan combats the stigmata of arrested development by pairing his newfound diaphanous approach to writing music with the lyrical style he’s been exploring: a gradual bloom of narrative and imagery instead of an explosion of dynamically worded couplets.

There are multiple allusions to America in Apocalypse, most explicitly in “America!,” a tune that holds a barrage of olden pop culture references and military conflicts on top of a subtle, lite-funk groove. Over squalling, exploratory guitar soloing, Callahan gets homesick watching David Letterman broadcasts from Australia and quickly spouts, “I’ve never served for my country.” On tension-filled, near-epic opener “Drover,” Callahan bellows, “And one thing about this wild, wild country / It takes a strong, strong and break a strong, strong mind.” Right before, he provides an astute commentary on the ideals of government: “And I set my watch against the city clock / It was way off.” The bulk of the album’s lyrics deal with man’s personal disconnect with the wider world, a series of monologues trying to make sense of the separation. “I asked the room if I’d said enough / No one really answered.” With this comes a wide array of lyrics about flight, and Callahan calmly singing the album’s title on multiple occasions.

In “Free’s,“ Callahan uses his soothing baritone to sing about “being derided for things I don’t believe / And lauded for things I did not do.” In a way, this serves as an allegory to the man’s career, as the his primary objective has been addition by subtraction, stripping away everything both musically and lyrically to dig down to the raw nerve. Callahan almost treats his work like a marathon instead of a sprint, and that’s probably the key to his remarkable longevity.

MP3: Bill Callahan-“Drover”

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