BILL CALLAHAN
Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle CD - Drag City

Funny that, as he gets older, the artist formerly known as Smog has blossomed into the kind of postmodern troubadour who would purposely and seriously title a song “Rococo Zephyr.” Callahan made his name writing unnervingly visceral lyrics on such classically misanthropic albums as 1997’s Red Apple Falls and 2000’s Dongs of Sevotion. While the experimental bent of those albums, enhanced by Jim O’Rourke’s otherworldly production, was largely abandoned in favor of traditionalist folk arrangements in Callahan’s more recent work, both as Smog and under his own name, the stylized and pleasantly foreboding atmosphere conjured by the lyrics remained intact.

Less so here, unfortunately. While nothing on Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle could possibly qualify as sentimental, the songwriter’s edge seems to have dulled somewhat. For one, Callahan has begun twisting his beautifully deadpan delivery into all sorts of odd melismas and scats. Check the chorus of Eagle’s second track, “Eid Maw Clack Shaw,” in which Callahan dreams he has written the perfect song and wakes up to find he’s scrawled the titular gibberish. It’s worse than it sounds: Callahan intones the awkward syllables deliberately and humorlessly, as if they were pearls of wisdom forever lost and distorted in this unconscionably pitiless world, or something. For an artist capable of wielding restraint like a nightstick, the occasional vocal tics seem out of place.

But if these complaints sound like the crotchety grumblings of an old-school fan dissatisfied with “his” artist’s new sound, well, they are. At its core, Eagle is simply an album of graceful and atmospheric folk songs, featuring sublime string and horn arrangements (courtesy of studio vet Brian Beattie) that dance around Callahan’s leaden baritone like a flock of seagulls drifting over a collapsed boardwalk in winter. Even the final track, a nine-minute paean to atheism called “Faith/Void,” evokes a sense of peace and well-being.

By Matthew V. DeWitt

dragcity.com/artists/bill-callahan

 

 


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