When Bill Callahan moved from Chicago to Austin, Texas in 2005 he was reborn as a songwriter. “I got a whole new perspective,” he told MOJO in 2011. “It all makes sense." The spare noir narratives of wayfaring strangers he’d sung as Smog since 1992 became more elusive, philosophical ruminations on the nature of existence in which the final jigsaw piece was missing.
A possible reworking of 2005’s A River Ain't Too Much To Love and an avowed fleshing out of 2011’s skeletal Apocalypse, Dream River may be Callahan’s most beguiling album yet.
Beginning with the narrator drinking in a hotel bar whilst other guests sleep, opening track The Sing is located in a bright present, Chojo Jacques’ fiddle, Matt Kinsey’s lyrical country guitar and Thor Harris’ rhythmic claves accompany the narrator as he moves from quiet contemplation (“The only words I said today are 'beer' and 'thank you'”) to a realisation that even that small interaction is a kind of prayer.
Both daft and beautiful, The Sing allows the album to take off, Beth Galiger’s rippling flute tracking Callahan’s melodious baritone through six elusive dream-songs bound in imagery of flight and changing seasons.
If Apocalypse was couched in the language of revelation, then Dream River might be read as its end-of-days sequel. "Bam, bam bam!/The earth off its axis," sings Callahan on the sweet silver canter of Javelin Unlanding, while the agitated guitar squall of Spring inhabits a season where “everything is dying”. The boat builder in Summer Painter watches hurricanes “rip the lips off the mouth of the bay”.
So plain as to be deceptive, Callahan's lyrics possess an odd koan-like quality, perfectly complimented on Dream River by his musicians’ strange, echoing accompaniments. Songs billow, soar and undergo magical transitions so that clear messages or routes become lost. You sense this is intentional. On the rustling skittish ascent of Ride My Arrow Callahan asks, “Is life a ride to ride/Or a story to shape and confide/Or chaos neatly denied?”
But like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s test of intelligence – to hold in mind two opposing ideas at the same time – Callahan’s oft pessimistic worldview is combined with a deep intuitive pleasure at being alive; his narrators know the world is out of balance yet find great satisfaction in its tiny epiphanies: “I really am a lucky man,” he sings on Small Plane, “flying this small plane”.
With the last song, the truly beautiful Winter Road, we arrive back down to earth, our narrator driving home through the snow, listening to a Donald Sutherland interview on his truck radio. "I have learned when things are beautiful," he sings, "to just keep on."
As final album lines go it's neither bold nor self-assertive, but in the context of what's gone before it feels just perfect, that missing piece of blue sky puzzle.
Bill Callahan Talks To Andrew Male.
Is Dream River a new chapter for Bill Callahan?
“Apocalypse was like the skeleton. With Dream River I wanted to put flesh on the skeleton. I tend to just break things down every few years. Something like Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle was me at my most fleshed out then Apocalypse ripped all that stuff off. Now I'm sort of building up again. That tends to be the way that I work.
The seasons theme seems pretty explicit here.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about our collective ideas or whatever they’re called. Like when we used to think the earth was flat. That made sense to everybody and that’s how we lived our lives, with monsters at the edge of the earth. With the seasonal thing I was trying to look at the way things are changing. With global warming it’s like we’re sort of losing the old idea of what a season is. So there is that natural edge to the album but in a more contemporary than a classical way.”
“Fiddle is the instrument of reality."
There's seems to be a clear narrative running through Dream River.
“When I sequenced the record I realised the first and last song were united in some way. The first song is a guy sitting in a bar, observing. All the other songs are like a trip, a lot of things flying and moving through the air. Then with the last song it’s back to reality. They're the only two songs that have fiddle on them. Fiddle is the instrument of reality. It seems to encapsulate everything about life.”
Does that mean that the flute is the dream instrument? It sounds like it’s taking flight.
“Yeah, I think you could say that. The fiddle is earthy and gritty and fleshy and the flute is like air, nothing there.”
It’s a great album to get lost in, trying to decipher what the songs are about...
“Yeah. Do you think doing an interview ruins that? I find that music has an amazing self-generating power in it that sometimes I might read about something that I like and I feel that it’s destroyed it. I might hold onto that idea for a few times but then the music wipes away all that.”
Listen to Javelin Unlanding in dub: