[Drag City; 2013]
If Bill Callahan were a painter, he would be Pablo Picasso. Besides the obvious presumption that Callahan has never been called an asshole, the connection can be found in the span of their respective work. While many musicians find a definitive sound and make a career out of it, Callahan is a constantly changing songwriting machine. Like Picasso, Callahan has gone through various stages, refusing to languish in mediocrity.
Callahan’s early 4-track forays were much like Picasso’s early days as a painter – flawed yet promising. As his Smog sound developed on albums like Wild Love and Knock Knock, he reached his “blue” period (stark subject matter presented in through distorted, bluesy melodies). Solo album Woke On a Whaleheart would be Callahan’s “rose” period (warm and adventurous soul music), Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle would be his Neo-classical album (drawing inspiration from ancient cultures and their totems, not to mention the heavy use of classical strings), and Apocalypse would be his surrealistic album (an unpredictable and jarring presentation of The End).
In 2013 Callahan is back with Dream River, an album that couldn’t be anything other than his venture into the world of Cubism. While in the past Callahan has been known to spin a masterful yarn, on Dream River he allows his minimalist imagery to tell the story. For example, on “The Sing” we get glimpses of “strangers unknowingly keeping company” with a lonely man “at a hotel bar, looking out a window that isn’t there.” These fleeting images set the scene for the story, and the must fill in the blanks.
The music is just as minimalist as the lyrics, the drums always remaining muted and the guitars virtually alone throughout, only to be occasionally joined by Callahan’s definitive baritone croak. Together, the lyrics and barebones music create a sparse atmosphere fit for the mundane yet profound portraits painted by the lyrics.
The album deals with themes of loneliness and true contentment, and as with any work of Cubism, there is no clear-cut answer as to how Callahan wants us to take it all in. We are the judges and there’s no correct answer. Songs like “The Sing” and “Seagull” present narrators who seem to be content with the lonely, bleak lives they lead. Tracks like “Small Plane,” “Spring,” and “Winter Road” stand in stark contrast, presenting the simplicity and happiness found in the monotony of sharing life with a partner. These disjointed views stand in stark contrast and provide a fully rounded view of the human condition.
Dream River isn’t a complete change for Callahan. Much like Apocalypse, the songs here are character pieces, presenting similar experiences in a wide-ranging cast. Whether it be the cannibalistic Indian “Ride My Arrow,” a man begging for his dying partner to hold on a little longer on “Javelin Unlanding,” or a boat painter who’s absence has led to the sorceress destruction to the coast on “Summer Painter.” As varied and strange as the narratives may get, they all are presented with a realism that hits home with the listener.
While the stories may seem outlandish when put down in typeset, the album in general is really just about enjoying the simple things. It could be a calming ride in a “Small Plane” with your wife, making love in the fresh dirt of “Spring.” The most revealing track of all though may be the final song “Winter Road.” In it, the narrator is driving through a dangerously fresh winter snow. As he listens to a Donald Sutherland interview he has the final realization of the album: “Oh I have learned when things are beautiful / To just keep on, just keep on.” Picasso couldn’t have said it any better.