BEST OF 2011: 2. Bill Callahan – Apocalypse

Having recommended many albums for their beautiful layers of sound, intricate percussion and meticulous production, it might seem a little odd that an album which is so low-key, so unpolished and so simple is this high up the list. It might also seem a little odd that that is a description of ‘Apocalypse’ after the warm, luscious wash of sound that was Callahan’s last outing, ‘Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle’. Something of a critical darling, and rightly so after years of producing fantastic music as both Smog and under his own name, it’s telling that when Radiohead release an eight track album people turn round and ask where the rest of it is, but when Callahan unleashes only seven tracks on the world, we simply appreciate the chance to hear them.

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With a controlled part-sung, part-spoken baritone, Callahan rarely disappoints, and even then you sort of suspect it might be you rather than him. Just as certain people radiate charisma in person, so Callahan’s voice is something of a magnet. Once he’s got you, there is a wealth of music to explore. Having enjoyed bits of his output in the past, it was only with ‘Apocalypse’ that it all truly clicked into place. It’s a very unassuming album, which may go some way to explaining why it appears to have been overlooked in some quarters come the end of the year.

Essentially recorded live, with a small but perfectly formed band, ‘Apocalypse’ is built using a relatively limited group of sounds and in some senses feels a little like a live performance is happening, albeit discreetly, in the corner of the room. Callahan’s vocals have always been pretty distinctive within the mix but, with songs gently strummed and adorned with sparse percussion, here he constantly hovers in the room. This is a headphones record and a speakers and comfy chair record. It’s a happy album and a sad album. It has a comforting warmth and a captivating confidence. Just as ‘One Sunday Morning’ takes as long as it needs at the ends of Wilco’s ‘The Whole Love’, so too the songs on ‘Apocalypse’, only one of which is under five minutes.

Riding For The Feeling’, perhaps the album’s most beautiful song, shimmers with an aching sense of regret. However, that dismay seems to stem from not feeling able to express himself when talking about his music. “I asked the room if I’d said enough. No one really answered,” he sings and are the faces “it’s never easy to say goodbye to” perhaps the songs on an album which are no longer his once they’re out in the world? It’s clear from Callahan’s interviews that he struggles to reflect on his music, often claiming to have forgotten the inspiration behind a song. Whatever the motivation, the result is staggering.

At the other end of the scale is the raw, lop-sided throb of ‘America!’ which has even been described by less self-conscious reviewers than I as “funky.” It’s an amusing tale of feeling distant, if not necessarily homesick, and how watching US talk show host Letterman on tour in Australia causes him to begin reflecting on America and, in particular, the military status achieved by various singers from his homeland. His already curious delivery is highlighted most obviously here. It’s great fun, and it makes you wonder if that is indeed all its meant to be, rather than a specific reflection on those named or the country of his birth.

Add in the verbalised puff of a fired gun several minutes into ‘Universal Applicant’, which triggers a brief, consuming pause before the song unfurls and the charming narrative of opener ‘Drover’ and this is already a pretty spectacular record. As the album comes to a close, Callahan sings its catalogue number, DC450, twice over the last, trickling notes of ‘One Fine Morning’, and the first time it made me laugh. It seemed like a quirky affectation but it serves to clearly mark the end of a collection of songs. It refers to how this particular source of entertainment is branded and it does make you wonder how much of what came before is autobiographical or metaphorical and how much he actually wants us to think about that. It’s already an album which is crying out to have one of the ‘33 1/3’ books written about it and for now I’m just going to continue enjoying its wondrous songs. ‘Apocalypse’ is quite possibly the best of his solo years and right up there with his finest moments as Smog. There have been more bombastic albums this year, more controversial, more innovative and more imposing, but few have been so purely and consistently engaging.

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