Stepping out from behind the Smog moniker, under which he has recorded for nearly two decades, Bill Callahan sounds on this album to be in surprisingly jaunty form. His lugubrious, baritone voice and wry asides remain, but he sounds more upbeat than ever before. No doubt much of this will be attributed to his settled relationship with harpist Joanna Newsom, and some will be disappointed at the relative absence of his usual morosely dark humour and the greater use of instrumentation, but for the most part it’s still a Smog album, albeit one where a watery sunshine is breaking through the clouds.
Ex-Royal Trux member Neil Hagerty pitches in on the production and arrangements, which are noticeably more ornate than on previous releases. Strings feature heavily as well as gospel singers and a much greater use of piano than ever before. The shimmering violins on “Night” recall Scott Walker’s “It’s Raining Today”, and on “Footprints” the slashing strings employed to propel the tune along are in the vein of Brian Eno’s early work with Roxy Music. The soulful “Diamond Dancer”, with its incessant driving bass line, is a distant cousin to the Stones disco-homage “Miss You”. I suspect that this track will prove to be the most problematic for long-term Smog fans used to his usual pared-down approach.
The centerpiece of the album is the delightfully simple yet ornately arranged “Sycamore”, which is one of the most elegant songs he has ever recorded. Those seeking a hit of Callahan’s misanthropy will not find it here. “There’s sap in the trees if you tap ‘em,” he sings, and later, “Christian / if you see your Papa tell him I love him.” The song seems to be an older man’s words of wisdom passed down in aphorisms to a young friend: “Sycamore got to grow down to grow up.” It’s a song that radiates content without ever sounding the least bit smug or self-satisfied. His voice sounds richer and warmer than on his last somewhat sparse and wintry release A River Ain’t Too Much to Love, recalling instead Supper‘s “Feather by Feather”, but without that song’s tinge of sadness and regret.
Opener “From the Rivers to the Ocean” provides a run through of Callahan’s stock water imagery, with a tune that actually resembles waves crashing on the beach: a chorus-less building of piano crescendos followed by quiet dissolves. “A Man Needs a Woman or a Man to be a Man” is a briskly old fashioned, country-tinged campfire sing-along.
At nine songs, Woke on a Whaleheart feels a tad too brief, too slight even. That impression is augmented by the quiet, undemonstrative tone of many of the songs. Lyrically the album breaks no new ground; the gentle homilies at times make you wish for his earlier dark edge. That said, this is still a deft piece of work by a deeply original and honest songwriter whose work is audibly softening as he approaches middle-age, his previous misanthropy giving way to quiet reflection.