Bill Callahan - Dream River | Album Review | By Volume

What is this life, why do we strive? Fast on a wheel, too fast to feel. One day, my love, this life will slow. Sam Brookes - One Day

Bill Callahan

Dream River

Bill Callahan alone, together.

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Author: on September 17, 2013
Drag City
September 17, 2013

There are so many marvelous and irreducible lines on Dream River’s lyric sheet, all of them worthy of unfurling, but first let’s talk about what happens behind Bill Callahan. “The Sing” is a song with a backdrop as intrusive as a movie’s intervening soundtrack; for every limb movement Callahan makes, for every wave of the hand he thoughtlessly throws out, his music seems to play in a different way. Elements evolve from his fingers; sometimes guitars trace the timbre of his voice, as if his momentary thoughts are echoing outwards, bouncing off the nothingness he describes. “Looking out a window that isn’t there”, as he does, and confirming it isn’t, as the music does. Then there are these other moments, with as much melodic athleticism, that bring about what is there in these stories, giving them the thrum of life like a real field recording would: “Outside, a train sings its… whale song”, Callahan broods, realising the analogy slowly and meticulously; behind him a violin is plucked in furious strokes, like a machine rolling restlessly over its tracks. The phrase begins as soon as he’s started singing, and continues onward without letting him even complete his thought. Callahan is playing catch-up on a record with more drama than he really needs.

The truth is Callahan is happy being alone on Dream River, or rather, he’s happy being alone, together. There’s a line on “The Sing” that reflects his loneliness with a wink: “the only words I said today are ‘beer’ and ‘thank you’”. It’s a funny lyric, one fans will quote because Callahan stresses it, but it’s an internal joke – he’s mocking his own invisibility. The punchline actually comes a little earlier, the joke complemented by a word uttered with a precision that makes it light as air, and which suggests everyone else is the same: “strangers”. Despite a song of wild, frank lyrical codas, Callahan makes that word my favorite. It follows on from a thought he’s long since abandoned, maybe because only he is able to perceive it (“drinking while sleepin’” is a gruff country rock impossibility), or maybe because the song has moved on. It also lends itself to a fuller story with as much absurdity: “strangers unknowingly keep me company”. On its own, though, it’s more important — he says it so suddenly, and then never again; it would carry a sense of shying away in any other song, the kind of I’m not with them! mortification, natural to a kid lingering behind their parents. For Callahan, it’s a way of getting closer without ever having to make any of his friends’ acquaintances; like him, they sit on their own in this hotel bar, accompanied only by their beer. Except they secretly have each other.

So even if Dream River moves faster than its protagonist, the hand drums urgently pushing the rhythm beyond him into newer, leafier territory, Callahan sounds happy. By that, I mean he sounds in control of every process, which is as good as true happiness. “Small Plane” is a gorgeous song, but unlike its counterparts on older Callahan records – it’s this record’s “Riding For The Feeling”, because you know, it’s fucking beautiful – it is weightless. “Small Plane” is literally about one’s problems disappearing into the air, its two lovers able to get lost in their flying lessons. Callahan makes the time they share look supremely private: a cabin in the sky where no one else can go, and where no malice can be felt. And be honest, who expected him to write that scene? “Small Plane” juxtaposes its dramas with their ease, suggesting fears and flaws and then saying never-mind, looks like we made it. Callahan’s guitar playing is subliminal; it’s as peaceful as the high altitude is suggested to be, barely heard aside from a few peaking riffs. And then there’s the percussion, reduced to bongos being slapped to convey the slow, steady movements of these two hearts.

The latter half of Dream River carries a sense of unease, at least musically, but Callahan takes on an omniscience that seems to dismiss it; the groaning guitar of “Spring” implies a more violent nature than this songwriter usually deals with, but he is privy to it, and that makes these moments as safe as the love story of “Small Plane” or the little victories of “The Sing”. “The wind is pushing the clouds along”, he notes, like a nod to time’s passage, before he waves them away completely: “out of sight / A power is putting them away”. Callahan’s storytelling is so graphically confident that one never really feels tension. There’s a sense that he can carry Dream River on his own, traversing this determined landscape with only a commanding tenor. And so “Spring” moves from its anxious sound to one of natural wonder – queue those flutes, baby – and eventually, to one of sensuality. “All I want to do is make love to you in the fertile dirt”, he sings upon the song’s climatic outbreak, using nature in bold strides: “with a careless mind”.

The songs that comprise the second half of Dream River are stranger and more unsettling, in part because they are longer, but mainly because they hold on to Callahan’s more ominous experiences. The drumming becomes slower, more lethargic, and those clean, spaced-out chord sequences start to flow methodologically. So it is that his stories become harder to escape, and drag on more helplessly. He still holds onto what he knows like the smartest folk songwriter around, but these stories are about what he shouldn’t have fucked with. “Summer Painter” has hard truths knocking around its every corner: “So I split”, he mumbles, but the story goes on whether he likes it or not: “but as a beaver is a damn builder, you never really quit”. The song, which is actually a simple allegory about a dude who builds boats, becomes something of a morality play, Callahan left with honest-to-god conclusions to make: “Like all that time spent down by the water had somehow given me control of the rain”. There’s less escapism to these songs; the know-it-all  Callahan remains brooding, but he doesn’t use nature for his own means, or call people he’s never met his new best friends. “Summer Painter” descends into dissonance, guitars starting to stutter and choke, but there’s a sense that Callahan is standing, quite unwillingly, when the song ends.

But then there’s “Winter Road”, a closer that suggests Callahan thinks of Dream River as a song cycle; the important thing is that his optimism, instilled in the record’s first weary smile, remains. “Winter Road” is the first song in which I notice our fearless leader before anything else; he isn’t reacting to the world outside him, but walking along as if he owns it. He is second to none of the song’s affectations; the song is a reactionary piece, one that peaks and climaxes around his cries to “just keep on”. “Winter Road” is a kindred spirit with Apocalypse’s “One Fine Morning”, a song with a bright, early AM crackle and a main character who happily steps into the crisp morning after a few moments of pain. The agony didn’t last, and realising that is tantamount to the ultimate peace and quiet of Dream River: “I have learned, when things are beautiful / to just keep on”. The guitar that flares up with this thought, and the violin that swells around the scene, provoke a bittersweet feeling; we are reminded that this thought has come in late. In Callahan’s case, it’s taken years of songs and wisecracks to realise not to tarnish this moment, but to go out, sit with it, and enjoy the fucking view.

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