BEST OF 2013: 5. Bill Callahan – Dream River

Two years ago, I found myself raving over Bill Callahan‘s last album, ‘Apocalypse’, and wondering quite why I’d never fallen so in love with his work before then. The subsequent months allowed for that to happen more fully and by the time ‘Dream River’ was first being filtered out to journalists, I was poised and ready to go. As a result, I spent almost a month solidly listening to this record. 2013 really has been the year of whole-month album-absorptions, with records locking on and refusing to let go. It’s not difficult to see why it may have happened with this particular album, continuing as it does Callahan’s recent run of masterful sets released under his own name. It is, arguably, his most affecting vocal performance of his career – he really seems to have considered the potential and power of his singing voice. Known for his dour delivery dating back to the early days of Smog, he has become increasingly at ease with pushing and stretching his voice to see where it will go. It is, as one might expect, really rather beautiful.

‘Small Plane’ may just edge it as this album’s finest track, although the vivid and sepia-tinted imagery of ‘Summer Painter’ runs it close. The former is a song which dawdles along, serene in its contentment and underlined by some gentle tape hiss. The lyrics contained within seem to offer metaphorical takes on the unit formed by a relationship and the sense that he is at ease sharing his life now. For example: “sometimes you sleep while I take us home, that’s when I know we really have a home. I never liked to land, getting back up seems impossibly grand. We do it with ease.” And that’s ignoring the repeated phrase, “I really am a lucky man.” He appears to be happy to sing this, but less comfortable discussing it when reflecting on his music. His prior reputation for being a challenging interviewee is hardly a secret and when I found myself in a position where I was due to conduct a chat with him for Clash, it dramatically affected how I listened to ‘Dream River’. For a week or so, I was forensic and determined, looking to draw out thoughts and angles that might prompt a purposeful response. As it happened, the interview ended up being conducted via email and largely free of incident. Two questions were ignored – one of which asked if this album might be considered his ‘contentment record’. The other touched on the almost playful delivery of certain aspects of his lyrics, such as “barroom barroom” in ‘Seagull’ or the delicious repetition of “beer and thank you” after the line “the only words I’ve said today are beer and thank you” on ‘The Sing’. It’s those moments I tend to gravitate towards myself, being something of a melody fan. Those very knowing aspects are fascinating and mysterious to me – and so they, evidently, will remain.

The rest of the interview offered some insight here and there, although the process of preparing for it left the album slightly over-exposed and the incessant listening came to an end. It has since been suitably rehabilitated, as its position here demonstrates. Having barely updated the blog in recent months, you’ll forgive me for using this an opportunity to reuse that feature. The album is a delight, my questioning adequate and Callahan’s responses, I hope, of interest to you.

***

The title ʻDream Riverʼ seems a pretty distinct contrast from ʻApocalypseʼ and the songs therein seem to capture a certain ease with the world. Where did the title come from and how much importance do you attach to your album titles in general?

A lot of importance. It has to be the perfect thing. With ‘Dream River’ I realised those words, while very common in titles, haven’t really been put together in the past – but it feels like they have. It seems familiar, but it’s not; like a dream.

There seems to be a lot of movement on the record – a plane, seagull and javelin. Does this set of songs come from a change in your feelings about the world since ʻApocalypseʼ, where you seemed to be scrutinising modern America?

I wouldn’t say I was scrutinising modern America. I was more just describing it. To me it seems like a natural progression: after apocalypse the dream river. An attitude towards the world is all within. Not much has really changed in the last 800 years.

I spoke to an artist recently who said that, after twenty solid years, song writing no longer came easily. Is that the case for you, or has it got easier over time? Are you someone who needs to write?

It’s pretty easy. You’ve got to be more selective over time, though. No need to repeat yourself, so that takes a bit more time. The basketball court gets longer, but the basket stays the same height. I probably do need to write but I don’t ever stop, so I don’t feel a need.

Is ʻDream River’ your fifteenth album in your eyes, or do you consider the eleven Smog albums as a different part of your career? Presumably you feel vindicated about the decision to record under your own name?

I feel like Smog was a different time; I was different people. And who can feel tethered to a line that long and old? It’s more natural to me to think in the form of trilogies. That’s about as far back as I can go in my catalogue and still have an inkling of who I was then and what I was doing. Anything further back than that becomes awkward teenage photos.

What have you been listening to recently? Does the current music scene excite you?

Loving the new Urban Cone. I don’t really like the way R&B is going. It’s very Euro Disco these days. Hip Hop is almost always interesting. I like Future and Lil Boosie. Nothing is really music anymore these days, though. It’s just computer washes of sound. Which is fine for Hip Hop, but not other stuff.

For someone not especially fond of talking about his work, I find it interesting that there were both a tour film and book of photographs of late. Are you happy to give part of yourself to your audience, you’d just rather not have to explain it afterwards?

If people want it, truly want it, then I am happy to give it to them. If people are just pretending to want it to be polite, then I don’t want to give it to them, and it’s a matter of only wanting to give something to people that is worthwhile. There’s no sense in giving something/anything just for the sake of it, in my book. It has to be the right time and place.

After the warm response to ‘Letters to Emma Bowlcut’, are there any plans for another novel?

I am working on it. I think Emma just went into its fourth printing which is pretty cool. It was translated into Spanish and German. Pretty wild. Maybe the publishers are just being polite in doing that, I don’t know.

What are you currently reading? Is it any good?

I don’t read anymore. TV is too good.

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