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Call for Music Critics and Essayists: If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by our quality readership.

Bill Callahan: Apocalypse

Bill Callahan
Drag City

Bill Callahan always seems like the smartest guy in the room. Though his latest albums increasingly feature tried-and-true Americana instrumentation — simply-plucked acoustic guitar, brushed snares, a swell of strings or woodwinds here and there — and though his warm baritone could practically tuck you in at night, he also seems increasingly unknowable. Hiding behind those conventional tools lurks a thoroughly unconventional songwriter, a man with a poet’s eye but a man who also seems to sing to himself. Apocalypse, like Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle (2009), sounds like an album with Something to Say about the human condition — but just as often it, sounds like Callahan isn’t interested in piecing that vision together for you: his lyrics have gotten less personalized and the songs have gotten longer, sprawling out toward the desert.

That’s fine. Apocalypse (like Eagle, again) has enough beauty in its seven songs to make it an immediate visceral satisfaction while the intellectual delights of Callahan’s words take their time to sink in. The Bill Callahan of these songs — the “I” in them — occupies an alternate American landscape, one still comprised of “wild, wild country” where the expanse of land and desolation offers adventure and loneliness in equal measure. On “Drover”, a wonderfully dramatic opener, Callahan casts himself as a cattle hand, his emotional strife either projected onto or passed onto him from the herd. “I drove them by the crops and thought the crops were lost”, he sings, “I consoled myself with rudimentary thoughts / And I set my watch against the city clock / It was way off”. The cattle ride on, eventually turning on him and knocking him to the dirt; he doesn’t blame the animals, knowing they mean more than he does: “My cattle bears it all away for me and everyone / One, one, one, one, one, one”.

The music underscores the importance of this realization, building in volume on a parallel path to the narrative’s climax. Callahan is a storyteller, and he knows how to use his guitar and his pen in tandem to great effect. He carries the Western themes through the record. The gorgeous “Riding for the Feeling” — possibly the album’s finest moment — has Callahan saddling up to leave town once again, though he can’t find a convincing reason to go other than a sense of momentum. He sings: “They just said, ‘Don’t go, don’t go’ / Well, all this leaving is neverending / I kept hoping for one more question / Or for someone to say, / ‘Who do you think you are?’ / So I could tell them”. Album closer “One Fine Morning” takes on the same issue — riding out into the sunset — with different results. Here, Callahan finds some small triumph in exile, deciding, “And for I am a part of the road / Yeah, I am a part of the road / The hardest part / The hardest part”. All the while, he and his band, draw just the right notes of mourning and longing, piano and guitar, and atmospheric noise all coming together perfectly. It’s a song for traveling, and Callahan wouldn’t have to try too hard to convince you to join him.

Despite these tracks’ subtle powers, “America!” will likely be the song to garner the most attention here. A tongue-not-entirely-in-cheek protest number, it has Callahan listing American military blunders over smoldering electric guitar: “Afghanistan, Iran, Vietnam, Native Ameri-can: / America!” Of course, Callahan follows up the name-dropping with a brilliant half-apology, reminding us, “Everyone’s allowed a past / they don’t care to mention”. Sure, “America!” hits for a couple of laughs and provides a sort of aural palate cleanser in its distinctive instrumentation, but it’s hard to see it stacking up with the rest of the material on Apocalypse after a few spins. Compare it with the fragile elegy “Baby’s Breath” and see which comes up short.

Apocalypse is a restless record, one concerned with the difficulties of staying put. In that way, it also keeps itself at arm’s length. Callahan’s stripped away a good degree of the hooks present on Eagle, and in the process he’s made a more serious (and, sure, self-serious) album. He’s a talent prodigious enough to warrant a lateral move, and Apocalypse will find its rightful place in his 20-odd-years-long canon. It’s hard to think of an album more thoroughly transportive, even if the places it takes you won’t always be pleasant.

RATING 7 / 10