On Bill Callahan’s previous effort, Apocalypse, he looked outward across the American landscape. The differences between that record and this one end there; Dream River opens with our protagonist in a bar by himself and ends with him in a similar state but on the open road. Between those two points, he’s focused almost entirely inward (with the occasional sprinkling of natural themes as per his M.O.). But, despite the fact that this one’s title suggests calmness, its music more often than not, suggest calamity.
“I’ve got limitations,” he says on opener “The Sing”. That’s extremely poignant—Bill Callahan understands his voice isn’t the same as it once was, two decades ago when he operated under the Smog moniker. But that’s not an issue, or at least, he doesn’t make it one. He understands the fundamentals of songwriting; that less is more and that showing is better than telling. For example, the first verse of “Winter Road” ends with the lingering, “Time itself means nothing / But time spent with you.” Nothing more needs to be said. But another of Bill Callahan’s strengths is by pulling you into the music; the line “Well the only words I said today are ‘beer’ and ‘thank you’” (again from opener “The Sing”), should automatically stand out, especially due to the deadpanned way he says “Beer”. But by muttering “Beer” and “Thank You” continuously thereafter, it’s almost as if you’re one of the patrons in the bar mentioned in the first few lines.
Not only that, Bill Callahan directs his session musicians to help boost his words’ power wherever able. The claves on “The Sing” imitate the sounds of gentle raindrops outside the bar, but also (with a shout-out to Marvin Gaye) separate the track from its otherwise country feel (brought on by some excellent fiddle work). The rattlesnake noises that emerge in the last few lines of “Spring”, where Callahan divulges into a Van Morrison-like fever, “All I want to do / All I want to do is to make love to you / In the fertile dirt, in the fertile dirt / With a careless mind / With a careless, careless, careless mind” and the ominous guitar adds more weight to the centerpieced stanza in the otherwise abstract “Seagull”, “I wonder if I’ll ever wake up / I mean really wake up.” The instruments either die down (“When the hurricane hit…”) or come crashing in (“Like a sorcerer’s cape…”) on “Summer Painter”, or otherwise simply harmonizing with Callahan on the steady climb as he repeats the mantra, “When things are beautiful, just keep on”, ending the album on a relatively positive note.
To be sure, as fans familiar with Callahan’s work could probably have guessed, there is no such thing as a bad moment on Dream River. That being said, I wish that he chose to use a different percussion instrument than bringing back the claves for back-to-back “Summer Painter” and “Seagull”, neither of which use the instrument as well as “The Sing” did. Elsewhere, “Small Plane” is a brief reprise in an album plagued with heavy thoughts, but without any lyrics or instrumentation worth noting, it doesn’t earn its domestication. This is especially true when it follows “Javelin Unlanding”, perhaps the album’s strongest track. Not only does it feature the album’s most tangible hook, but the instruments literally do unfold, combining the immediacy of the guitars from “Stephanie Knows Who” and the playful flutes of “She Comes in Colors” over Latin percussion that would make Arthur Lee proud. And while Bill Callahan might be the focus of the album, a lot of praise goes to Matt Kinsey, whose guitar on the bluesy “Spring” or constantly mobile “Ride My Arrow” could have single-handedly carried those tracks if needed to.
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