It seems strange that despite mapping a stark landscape of monosyllabic alienation since the late 80’s, Bill Callahan has managed to get comfortable in this world, and even happy (note the unusual smile on his latest press release). And so he sings on one of Dream River‘s songs ‘Small Plane’ ‘I really am a lucky man’. He is no longer a fringe musician, nor secondary to his former lovers such as Cat Power or Joanna Newsom, but has developed into this 21st century godfather to the American songwriter canon. This is not really news. Callahan has been in this sublime state ever since he changed from his moniker Smog, developed a rich baritone voice and really given his backing musicians space for expansion. But it is in Dream River that he seems to have finally settled into this tirelessly crafted environment, best exemplified by the little pocket of paradise painted on the front cover. Perhaps this is most apparent now because his first three albums under his actual name have been so diversely brilliant that the man has seemed in constant transition. Now his new album is one of Callahan’s most comfortable to date, which he has enforced in interviews saying he wanted it to be ‘the last record you could listen to at the end of the day, before you go to bed…smooth and relaxing’
On one level this may seem worrying: that Callahan often the stark realist may be sacrificing depth for peace of mind. Indeed Dream River contains neither the dark introspection of Sometimes I Wish we Were An Eagle nor the rapture of Apocalypse. Furthermore Dream River is also the most similar to its predecessor. Taking cue from the jazzier songs of Apocalypse such as ‘Universal Applicant’ and ‘Free’s,’ his new album could almost be mistaken for a deluxe version of the former. Similarly while Apocalypse perceives his heroes to the frontier, on Dream River Callahan’s protagonists seem wholly static, languishing in a bar in ‘The Sing’ or painting boats in ‘Summer Painter’. However, this relative lack does not show any sign of the songwriter resting on his laurels. Instead it shows the more subtle difficulty of how one carries on after having walked into the sunset, as Callahan seems to literally do at the end of Apocalypse. Indeed, as he sings in ‘Javelin Unlanding’ the main goal now is ‘don’t die just yet’.
Thus instead of re-evaluation, which has been key in his past few albums, Callahan has chosen the less dramatic but equally as important direction of subtle self-improvement. For example in taking cue from the jazzy influences of Apocalypse Callahan further pursues accommodating soul and R&B into his soundscape. Indeed as he sings in his opening song ‘I’ve got limitations/ like Marvin Gaye’ the album does not seem too far from What’s Going On. Oh he also uses a hell of a lot of flanger on his guitar. Indeed the new genres and guitar sounds are only a few examples of Callahan continuously challenging these ‘limitations’. He uncharacteristically strains his voice to bleed out the emotion, most evident in ‘Winter Road,’ possibly from the influence of country singer Mickey Newbury of who he brilliantly covered in 2012. Likewise Callahan tends to eschew his usual formula of the drilling two-chord sequence, and litters his songs with changes of key and mood. Furthermore, Callahan’s lyrics often undermine the sweet assurance of their musical counterparts, with such macabre as ‘And some people find the taste of pilgrim guts to be too strong,/ Me, I find I can’t get by without them for too long’ in ‘Ride My Arrow’ or pure lust in ‘Spring’ of wanting to ‘make love to you/ in the fertile dirt’.
And so though Dream River does not contain the same calibre of singles as his earlier albums, it is by far his easiest album yet to digest. Yet while I criticised the National’s album earlier for lacking depth behind its front of appeal, this is not the case here. Callahan’s dreamscape of eight songs offers a rich and sometimes disturbing journey that will make you want to jump back into the river again.