Bill Callahan Jumps In

The way many came to know lo-fi kingpin Bill Callahan was his song “Cold Blooded Old Times,” featured on every music lover’s favorite film, High Fidelity, and lifted from his longtime project Smog’s excellent 1999 album Knock Knock. By then, Callahan was leaps and bounds beyond the material that had defined his work earlier that decade, having explored sonic territory from the flickering, jangled experimentalism of Forgotten Foundation to the stripped-down, sparse echo of Red Apple Falls.

With Knock Knock, Callahan was firmly, finally established as a songwriter. From there issued the tender “Held,” the seductive “Dress Sexy at My Funeral,” the wonderfully driving “Song,” and the last album recorded as Smog, the simple, rustic A River Ain’t Too Much to Love. Callahan, whose smooth, calming baritone sounds like a “Perfect Day”-era Lou Reed laid atop a “Suzanne”-era Leonard Cohen, had tapped into his real talents: a knack for crafting evocative lyricism offset by well-timed instrumentation.

When he started recording under his name, Callahan emerged from another period of growth that replaced the careful, intentional pace of his earlier music with streamlined melodies and more fluid compositions. 2007’s dazzling Woke on a Whaleheart, a fanciful, pastoral journey that allows its themes—often animals, the natural world, and existential observations—to appear and then wander through at their own pace, is well cast with a studio ensemble that puts violin, glockenspiel, and organ to instinctual, easy use.

His latest is Dream River, which some have called a masterpiece (Pitchfork, to that end, ranked it an enviable 8.5, their highest rating yet for his solo releases). Like a meandering stream, it continues to gently probe Callahan’s common themes though beautifully restrained, acoustic arrangements, yet there’s a greater ease to Callahan’s voice. Oddly, it arrives with a feeling of wistful resignation, as if the singer has simply continued to settle into himself, taking his own advice from “From the Rivers to the Ocean” when he sings, “I could tell you about the river/Or we could just get in.”

 
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