Bill Callahan: Dream River Review
Bil Callahan is in the catbird’s seat. His sound, a wispy mix of minimal Americana and his rugged, weary baritone, is about as timeless as you can get. He never really busts out a complete left-field move, yet his formula continues to sound fresh and innovative with each new release. His latest Drag City overture is Dream River, a ideological, if not emotional, follow up to his amazing 2011 release Apocalypse.
While it would be disingenuous to say he ever sounded spry or chipper, there is a level of tranquility on this record. Some of it comes via having a person to love, such as on the sentimental “Small Plane,” where he sings “sometimes you sleep when I take you home, that’s how I know we really have a home.” Other times his acerbic wit targets life’s complexities. On the album standout “Segaull,” which is a lyrical masterwork, he sings in his deadpan delivery “with all the tolls we’ve paid, we’ll own the highway someday.” On the twangy opener “The Sing,” he says “The only words I said today were ‘beer and thank,'” while a morose string section weeps behind him, crafting one of those moments that can somehow be funny and sad at the same time. Callahan has the lyrical gift, like David Berman, of sounding both deadly serious and like he couldn’t give a shit. His casual demeanor is challenged at almost every step by his amazing lyrics and the crack band backing him up. Dream River is a bare-bones record as far as instruments and delivery, but it is one of the most profound and interesting releases this year, a trick very few artists would be able to pull off, yet alone even try to achieve.
From his earliest work with Smog to his last recorded material (hopefully many decades from now), there is something about Callahan that defies time. Dream River is pop record made in 2013, but its imagery and storytelling aren’t tethered to any point in time. The songs are both grounded in the most basic human emotions and float into the ether of absurdest fantasy (there are lyrics about eating Pilgrims). I would say Callahan as a singer/songwriter is in his prime, but I think that might be a misnomer. Alongside artists like Tom Waits, Callahan is an old soul in a mortal body, a gift that keeps on giving. Records like Dream River are just a reminder that trends fade, but artists like Callahan create true pieces of art that can and will be appreciated much beyond the time that they were unleashed on the world. Appreciate this record today, tomorrow and in 20 years, because its going to sound outstanding at every stop along the way.
See Bill Callahan tonight at the Cedar Cultural Center.
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