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When Bill Callahan released Woke On A Whaleheart, his first record under his own name in 2007, there was much speculation as to why he'd ditched the Smog name under which his songs had previously appeared. Was it a change in direction? An openness that hadn’t appeared before? A mark of a newly confident, optimistic Callahan, ready to deliver anthemic songs of hope?
A brief listen to Whaleheart, or the next Bill Callahan album, 2009’s Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle, soon put such ridiculous thoughts to bed. Here was the same bone-dry baritone, delivering cyclical songs about rivers, wild animals and mirage-like emotions with minimum fanfare. Yes, there was occasional musical adventures that hadn’t been attempted by Callahan before – a choir! strings! – but at heart it was the same man we’d heard, and admired, before.
It’s safe to say that Apocalype fits neatly into this same lineage. Seven sparse pieces of music, accompanying Callahan’s particularly dry sense of humour and his stark visual metaphors, his latest LP is as reliably fine as a new film from the Coen Brothers.
The American film-makers are quite an apt comparison for Callahan, seeing as both parties concern themselves with similar themes – dark feelings and dark humour, threats to masculinity and traditional values.
And just as their latter career has seen the Coens heading for the great American outdoors and the ideal of the Western, so Callahan often finds himself on a dusty plain or a deserted ravine in Apocalype’s vivid creations.
The album’s centre-piece ‘Universal Applicant’ captures this best. Against a backdrop of propulsive flute and insistent guitar, Callahan tells a mythical story of buffalo, bees and a great journey where he’s kidnapped and “tied up in a boat and kicked off to sea.” As he expands the story, you’re never sure just how serious he is, but you end up captivated regardless.
It’s the same with ‘Drover’, the album’s opener, where Callahan herds cattle in the “wild, wild country”, or ‘Riding For The Feeling’, which builds from nothing to become another long, luscious journey through Callahan’s consciousness. He never directly addresses anything as vulgar as feelings or emotions, but in his rich voice and those evocative lyrics, there’s sadness, regret and yearning.
Even the most incongruous track on Apocalype, the stomping rocker that is ‘America!’ ties into the same ideas. A letter from a homesick traveler, watching David Letterman in Australia, the track ironically salutes Callahan’s home country and the mythology behind the nation, visualising classic singers as military greats – “Captain Kristofferson! Sergeant Cash! What an army! What an airforce! America!” When, after this barnstorming, Callahan quietly states “I never served my country”, the rug is pulled out from under the whole thing, and we’re back in what he sees making America truly great – the landscapes, nature and the chance to escape.
Apocalype then, is another Bill Callahan album, similar to those that came before it, with some particularly beautiful songs and some particularly considerate musical accompaniment from the band he has gathered around him. That it happens to be both heartbreaking and life affirming is just something we’ve come to expect.
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