Since 1991, when Acid Jazz labelhead Eddie Pillar re-released Terry Callier’s commercial flop 12” single “I Don’t Want to See Myself (Without You)”, he has found himself a mainstay in the British electronic scene. After being embraced by the club scene in the early ’90s, Callier regained the confidence he needed to come out of retirement. Shortly after, he was picked up by a fellow soulful folkie and down-tempo electronic audience advocate, Beth Orton, for her 1997 EP, Best Bit, and Callier found comfort in a new generation of musicians.
With his latest recording, Hidden Conversations, Callier decided to wholeheartedly embrace his younger generation of supporters and put a good deal of creative forces in their hands. Massive Attack’s Robert Del Naja is the mastermind behind the beats for 3 of the recordings, truly accenting Callier’s soulful voice with a world full of eerie, noir-style beats. The reason this collaboration is so favorable to success is that it was never highlighted as something Del Naja took over. This is still Terry Callier’s show, and it’s not one of those shock factor comeback albums with a bunch of young, hot shot producer collaborators. Callier has been in the game for four decades, staying dedicated to his art, developing it at a slow and steady pace along the way.
With that said, pulling Del Naja along for the ride is no small feat. Most producers save their best work for their pet projects, giving their second-rate material to side projects, but Hidden Conversations is a labor of love, and some of the best work Del Naja has done within or out of Massive Attack in recent years. The intro track, “Wings” is easily the heaviest hitter on the album, featuring a sluggish trip-hop banger drenched with an ambience of pads and a gorgeous, minimal chord progression on the Rhodes. Callier delivers with the confidence of the Last Poets during his spoken word bit, and sings with a vibrato that only a true veteran can carry. The other Del Naja co-written track, “John Lee Hooker”, is a diversion from his normal electronic-based production into something more traditional. Still carrying the same overall feel into a more guitar-driven sound, this is an exploration of trip-hop in a more organic environment — something groups like Zero 7 and Cinematic Orchestra have championed in recent years.
Although Del Naja brings a vibrant addition to Hidden Conversations, the biggest surprise on the album is Callier’s solo writing. The admiration and technique comes full circle, while Callier takes on the sound of down-tempo mixed with a minimalist electronic edge that will gladly appeal to ’90s trip-hop heads. In particular, the last song on the recording, “Jessie and Alice”, is the perfect blend of Callier’s slow, blissed-out acoustic guitar strumming drenched in a lo-fi reverb, among the glitchy, subtle soul-jazz beat. On “Fool Me Fool You”, Callier goes back to his days as a prophetic voice in the Windy City, speaking spoken-word with authority and clarity that many of today’s hip-hop emcees are incapable of approaching. He brings the focus back to simplicity and repetition in getting your message across, something many of hip-hop’s elder statesmen would help impart to a younger generation of emcee as one of the most important elements of the genre.
While Callier has always somewhat defied genre classification, he really takes it to the next level here. Using his experience as a veteran soul singer and underground folk legend, he has been making strides to make his voice heard during his second run as a performing artist. While 2005’s Lookin’ Out was a near-perfect visit to the past, Hidden Conversations is the most profound, forward-thinking record Callier has put out since his flawless run in the early ’70s with What Color Is Love? and I Just Can’t Help Myself.