Though not his most recent album, Callahan’s “Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle”, released in 2009, recently made an impact on me, and so deserves attention. At first listen I found his songs too drowsy. But second time round, I was in the bath, and the songs made their effect. It was not a ‘Eureka!’’ moment, but more a moment when you relax lower into the bubbles knowing that everything is going to be fine for now.
Bill Callahan harks as far back to the late eighties, under the stage-name Smog, and can be classed with great American alternative acoustic acts such as The Silver Jews, Bonnie Prince Billy and Iron & Wine. However, he is most similar to Leonard Cohen, with his deep monotone voice and simple chord structure. Callahan has been a very welcome alternative to what I find to be the shallow posturing of the nu-folk that has come out of England. For he has found power in the simple in order to achieve sincerity. The slow finger-picking that pervades through every song, and the low voice that maintains a toneless emotion, but every so often bursts into a chilling note. Even the words sound like anti-lyrics such as the couplet in “Rococo Zephyr” “Well I used to be sort of blind/ Now I can sort of see”, that refuse the help of any mellifluous vocabulary, in order that he make his own poetry, true to himself.
This album reminded me of an Emily Dickinson line “After a great pain, a formal feeling comes”. For it shows the calm composure that one gets after tragedy. More precisely it marks the point when the broken person starts to rebuild, as the first line on the album goes “I started out in search of ordinary things”, underlining his focus on the simpler parts of life. And though the album does not have the euphoria of being in love, or the fury of an argument, it does have its own energy in the hope that the songs pertain. But it is not overreaching hope. For the speaker in the song “Jim Cain” knows he fallible with the cutting line “I used to be dark, then I got lighter, then I got dark again” and the music occasionally takes a darker tone to reflect that part of his self. But this conflict is best represented in “My Friends” where the music suddenly takes a surprisingly ominous turn with drums beating, but suddenly reveals itself as a warm chorus where Callahan literally exhales the lines “my friends”. Indeed the album title Sometimes I wish we were an Eagle, suggests both a desire to be free of his worldly shackles and pain, but also an acceptance of his human lot, and a striving to make the most of it.