Bill Callahan: Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle

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.

Bill Callahan

Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle

Label: Drag City
US Release Date: 2009-04-14
UK Release Date: 2009-04-13

“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.






The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.


The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.


Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.


'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.


'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"


Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.


The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".


GLVES Creates Mesmerizing Dark Folktronica on "Heal Me"

Australian First Nations singer-songwriter GLVES creates dense, deep, and darkish electropop that mesmerizes with its blend of electronics and native sounds on "Heal Me".


Otis Junior and Dr. Dundiff Tells Us "When It's Sweet" It's So Sweet

Neo-soul singer Otis Junior teams with fellow Kentuckian Dr. Dundiff and his hip-hop beats for the silky, groovy "When It's Sweet".


Lars and the Magic Mountain's "Invincible" Is a Shoegazey, Dreamy Delight (premiere)

Dutch space pop/psychedelic band Lars and the Magic Mountain share the dreamy and gorgeous "Invincible".


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.


Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.


The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".


Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.


Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.