(Drag City; 2011)
By Lindsay Zoladz | 21 April 2011
Bill Callahan has the voice of an Old Testament God talking to himself. It’s a plaintive, colloquial voice booming omnipotent above his songs’ unpeopled landscapes: everybody else has drowned. There are some animals wandering around, but they can’t understand what he’s saying; his syllables thunder unintelligible like adults’ words in Peanuts cartoons. The bleak humor of alienation is a recurring theme in Callahan’s music: he called his last album Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle (2009), a wistful punchline about the impossibility of being anything but human. It is probably Callahan’s idea of a joke, then, to title a serene and thoroughly gorgeous album Apocalypse.
With each album he releases, Bill Callahan, the artist formerly known as Smog, takes another step away from the Jandek-inspired dissonance of his debut Sewn to the Sky (1990) and toward an increasingly articulate and pristine style that still manages to retain the intimacy and drollness of his earliest work. It’s no easy feat to pull off. Many lesser lo-fi gods have fallen into complacency or gone one-dimensional in late-career embraces of high fidelity (you got it back in the end, Bob, but Do the Collapse ?), but in recent years Callahan’s songwriting has continued to move steadily forward and fearlessly inward, focusing with ever-sharpening clarity. Despite its disparate production values, there’s a sense of thematic unity to his catalogue: photonegative snapshots of American individualism; the lonely, inescapable self. Much like cowboys, trustfund twentysomethings and Roberto Bolano protagonists, Callahan narrators move restlessly without knowing where they’re going, eschewing other people’s obsessions with destinations but secretly wishing they had one too. I’ve always loved this image from the looping, meditative Knock Knock (1999) track “Held”: “I let myself be held like a big ol’ baby / I surrendered to your charity…For the first time in my life, I am moving away from within the reach of me.” That’s the destination, realized: the bliss of escaping the self, through surrender to interdependence, love or—as his latest album suggests—the end of the world as we know it.
“Drover,” the album’s locomotive opener proves something I’ve always believed: Bill Callahan makes music best listened to on trains. If you haven’t heard the album yet you should buy a cross-country ticket just for the occasion. Percussion, guitar and strings interlock and chug forth with escalating momentum, while Callahan spins a tale of—what else—a solitary man. “The real people went away;” hear them receding with the steaming train. The titular drover busies himself tending to his cattle, until one day the beasts turn on him and knock him flat. Is this really a song about livestock? Or does Callahan see the drover as a metaphorical kindred spirit, devoted to a solitary task not unlike wrangling unruly thoughts into words? You can ask these questions all you want, or you can just climb aboard and get lost in the album’s steady chug.
As on Sometimes I Wish I Was an Eagle, Apocalypse deals in the barriers between man and the natural world. (Once again, I can think of no visual accompaniment more apt than a pastoral stretch of countryside, viewed through the thick glass of an Amtrak window streaked with some sleeping passenger’s drool, long dried.) “Universal Applicant” finds him following a swarm of bees, and lost in a reverie, he imagines himself “kidnapped” by the grandeur around him, “tied up in a boat and kicked off to sea”: “I saw the calf / I saw the bees / I saw the buffalo and the colt / Well I’m sure they all laughed at me.”
“America!” is Apocalypse’s talking point: a wryly political love/hate poem to the land of the free and the folk singer. He runs down his roll call: “Captain Kristofferson / Buck Sergeant Newbury / Leatherneck Jones / Sergeant Cash,” and then as an aside in a tone of mock-inadequacy, “I never served my country.” After “America!”‘s upbeat tone, Apocalypse slopes down through the deeply felt slow-burner “Riding for the Feeling” and on through to the sublime, nine-minute finale “One Fine Morning.” Ever the rogue poet, how fitting that Callahan’s world ends with neither a bang nor a whimper, but a ballet: “The curtain rose and burned in the morning sun / And the mountains bowed down / Like a ballet of the heart / When the earth turns cold / And the earth turns black.” It’s a staggering image, strangely gentle and serene. And for all the grandeur, it’s all very personal: “My apocalypse, my apocalypse,” goes the refrain.
Callahan’s made plenty of fine albums—some of which boast higher highs than this one—but Apocalypse is such a satisfying and downright elegant listen because of its commitment to a narrative arc; as soon as it ends and you step back, the album takes the shape of a remarkably complete thought. Its formal structure reminds me of Sharon van Etten’s epic (for my money, one of the best albums of last year), another brilliantly paced seven-song album that moves the listener through discontent, alienation, and finally onto transcendence. And that seems to be what Callahan’s found by album’s end, an escape towards his final destination. We last see him a speck, riding off into a sunless horizon.