[16 April 2009]
“I started telling the story without knowing the end,” Bill Callahan intones on “Jim Cain”, setting the table for Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle, the second album to bear the given name of the artist formerly known as Smog. It’s a line whose implications pervade the rest of the record both in theme and sound: drifting, questioning, grasping at the fleeting and unknowable. After the pop and gospel touches that gave an edgy momentum to 2007’s Woke on a Whaleheart, Callahan reverts back to a style more distinctively his, that of patiently swaying compositions that unfold at their leisure, this time with the added treat of lush string and brass arrangements. As if in an attempt to gain the attributes of the album’s namesake bird, the songs on Eagle feel like they’re rising on thermals, shifting and soaring effortlessly where the wind takes them. And occasionally they dive right for your throat.
“The Wind and the Dove” lopes along with easy grace through several permutations. It opens somberly, with distant flourishes of piano and minor key, Near-Eastern melodies played on cello and pump organ. As the verse progress it starts to lift up toward a bittersweet chorus. The emotional peaks and valleys are subtly rendered but fit perfectly with Callahan’s searching lyrics. “Somewhere between the wind and the dove / Lies all I sought in you / And when the wind just dies / And the dove won’t rise from your windowsill / Well I can not tell you / Which way it would be if it was not this way too, for the wind and the dove.” Even if the words didn’t seem to reference the bird-hitting-window section of once flame Joanna Newsom’s “Only Skin” (which Callahan sang on), they would be exquisitely, painfully beautiful. But since they do, well, just damn.
But though sadness suffuses Eagle, Callahan’s voice manages as always to avoid self-pity. His famously dry oak timbre leaves catharsis entirely up to the listener. On songs like the aforementioned “Dove” and the delicate “Rococo Zephyr”, his conversational tone is by turns confiding and compelling. Whether or not his stories have ends, it’s all in the way they’re told, stretching out often to five minutes though they feel much shorter. “Eid Ma Clack Shaw” is the most dramatic, both structurally and in Callahan’s performance. Like a great novel, its first lines provide an irresistible hook, “Last night I swear I felt your touch / Gentle and warm / The hair stood on my arm / How? / … Show me the way to shake a memory.”
The song is as wrenching an attempt to get over someone as they come, with Callahan imagining himself a horse and his lover’s memory as the rider, “I flipped my forelock / I twitched my withers / I reared and bucked / I could not put my rider aground / All these fine memories are fuckin’ me down.” The song culls its title from a passage within where the character dreams “the perfect song” that reveals all of the answers to his broken relationship. He wakes up, scribbles them down, which are revealed in the morning to be gibberish, “Eid ma clack shaw / Zoopoven del baw / Merteppi vin senur / Cofally rag daw.” The dream-language is the song’s emotional climax, a desperate hand clutching smoke, and having been set-up by the rest of the story, it’s far more powerful (and truthful) than it would’ve been had the dream contained actual answers.
Not every song on Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle is so harrowing, though each has its moments. “My Friend” is sunny and steady, holding onto major chords and pushing forward with what must accurately be called gallows humor, “Now I’m not saying we are cut from the same tree / But like two pieces of the gallows / The pillar and the beam / … We share a common dream to destroy what will harm other men.” But there’s a tension in the suspended chord and lyric of “I will always love you,” leading up to a Tom Waits-growl emphasizing “my friend”, that casts a bit of shadow on reconciliation. “Too Many Birds” culminates with the phrase “If you could only stop your heartbeat for one heartbeat” wherein Callahan doles out an additional word with each repetition, “If you could only stop / If you could only stop your…” etc.
Finally, the album ends with the nearly 10-minute “Faith/Void”, which consists mostly of the line “It’s time to put God away” sung over and over again over gently rolling strings and strums that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Lambchop record. It’s an anti-epic about abandoning faith, that makes the act seems as peaceful and un-threatening as a warm breeze. Similarly, Eagle as a whole is nothing more or less than an anti-breakup album breakup album, choosing to lick its romantic wounds in its own iconoclastic way.