Bill Callahan is an oracular songwriter. His baritone is a lovely deadpan instrument. It’s always easy to understand what he’s saying, in a kind of cast-iron musical voice-over, but one rarely knows what exactly he’s getting at. One doesn’t immediately know if lines like this, about drinking in a hotel bar, are meant to be humorous, or just ominous: “The only words I’ve said today are ‘Beer’ and ‘Thank you,’ ‘Beer’ ‘Thank you,’ ‘Beer’ ‘Thank you,’ ‘Beer.”” That’s from “The Sing,” the first track on Dream River, his new record, which is being released by Drag City this week.
There are dreams, and flight, and dreams of flight, and elemental forces of flood, wind and hurricanes. There are trains, planes, and boats that thread through these songs. And homecomings, too. Eagles, roosters, seagulls and beavers all make appearances, as do arrows and javelins. A couple songs refer to letting the land be your guide as you travel over it. He sings about wanting to make love “with a careless mind” to someone “in the fertile dirt” in “Spring.” The music is clean, with Callahan’s vocal melodies getting embellished and echoed by trebly electric guitar lines, or a breathy flute, with everything propelled along with subdued hand-drumming or the wooden clack of a clave pattern. Occasional sonic dust storms of feedback and reverb swirl through a song’s final moments. Callahan’s music has a sun-baked poetry to it; it reminds me of the intimidating grandeur of scanning the horizon from a desert vista, the heat causing vaporous ripples, and the scope and breadth of everything making you feel puny, maybe even threatened. “The road is dangerous/and pretty and white” he sings on “Winter Road.”
Callahan, 47, is up there with Leonard Cohen and Townes Van Zandt in terms of songwriters of heavy-hitting life-plumbing seriousness, leavened with just a dash of sneaky sandpaper humor.
Dream River was recorded earlier this year, and it’s Callahan’s first release since 2011’s Apocalypse, which it has much in common with, including that looming sense of destruction that’s cooked into the working of the seasons. The Austin-based singer and songwriter makes songs that have an timeless gravity to them, but he throws in unusual pop-culture references — to Marvin Gaye or Donald Sutherland here, say — that root the material in the loose present. Though there is a visionquest element to many of the songs, a hint of fever dream. “I wonder if I’ll ever wake up, I mean really wake up,” he sings on “Seagull.” It’s not clear if he’s singing from the perspective of the seabird of the title, or some other character layered in the story. Callahan has said in interviews that some of this material came to him in dreams, and that he’s begun taking supplements to help him recall his dreams better. It’s paying off.
Callahan sings this on “Winter Road,” the last lines of the record: “I have learned, when things are beautiful, to just keep on.”