Bill Callahan is one of the relatively few songwriters who'll actually make me think about his lyrics. Because his delivery is so refreshingly opaque, so stripped of interpretative clues, listening to his work often approaches a literary experience.
That sounds fucking pretentious, doesn't it?
But it's true. The vast, vast majority of artists ram their meaning (such as it is) squarely in your face. Even those whose lyrics may be obscure or surreal will commonly deliver their performances in a way which offers precious little emotional ambiguity.
Bill Callahan is different. He performs as though he were reading poetry from a book, or covering someone else's songs. He does not presume, with his delivery, to govern the listener's response.
This endows his music with several a massive integrity. And makes interpreting it something of an endeavour.
... Which means, I suspect, that this review – of his 13th album, Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle – is going to be like a bloody essay. Good news, eh?
Well, let's get started, shall we?
'Eid Ma Clack Shaw' is the most intelligent song I've heard so far this year.
(So why not download an mp3 of Eid Ma Clack Shaw by Bill Callahan and pop it onto your stereobox?)
All pert piano, sonorous horns and 'Eleanor Rigby' strings, the song prepares us for the preoccupation of the record – the core to which so many of the songs may be nibbled down: coexistence of contradictory states. In 'Eid Ma Clack Shaw', it's dream-world and reality. The speaker dreams 'the perfect song / [that holds] all the answers' – the answers to his lonely desire to rid himself of memories (we presume of a departed lover). Waking, he 'scribble[s] it down' – but the words turn out to be incomprehensible.
(We'll come back to this.)
... Meanwhile (Christ a-fucking-live) I can't remember the last time I found a line of song as moving as the climax of 'Too Many Birds': 'If you could only stop your heartbeat for one hearbeat', sings Callahan, dispassionate as ever. Except that's not how we first hear it. The line is stoically repeated, eked out:
'If.If you.If you could.If you could only ...'
– and so on.
Here: have a listen, won't you. Download mp3 of Too Many Birds by Bill Callahan
As the line is painstakingly built and its meaning and emphasis shimmers and shifts, we witness the evolution of a beautiful melody, its character changing with each added word.
There's something of TS Eliot in this. The way in which a simple device (in this case repetition) is deployed in such a way (in concert with achingly dispassionate delivery) as to apply an emotional mace to the belly.
You're used to my grinding pretension, by now, I suppose – so you won't mind me illustrating my point with a quotation from the fucking excellent [that's a literary term] opening of Eliot's 'Ash Wednesday', will you?:
'Because I do not hope to turn againBecause I do not hopeBecause I do not hope to turn'
... Similar idea. Similar power.
Grand, Beautiful, Metaphorical.
And then there's the grand, beautiful metaphor that plays itself out across these songs. Like all good grand, beautiful metaphors, it is complex and not manifested outright. It doesn't govern the album, and it is not unambiguous. But it's all the better for that – and let's continue our jamboree of literary magpieism with a few lines from the wise and awesome Walt Whitman:
'Do I contradict myself?Very well then I contradict myself,(I am large, I contain multitudes.)'
Well put, Mr Whitman.
So, with that in mind, I'm not about to elucidate what I take to be the grand, beautiful metaphor – except to say that the whole of the album flits around the push and pull of togetherness (horse & rider; flock of birds) versus independence (the eagle). Around the concept of belonging; of possession, fixity and ownership. But I don't want to start explicating and ascribing symbols (even those bracketed equations I've just made are jarringly black/white) ...
And, in any case, the skill (and the magic) is not in the arraignment of neat symbols or allusions, but in their combination with one another and the shades of overlap and ambiguity. Take the song 'All Thoughts Are Prey to Some Beast', which opens with the lines,
'The leafless tree looked like a brainThe birds within were all the thoughts and desires within me.'
To this tree flies an eagle – causing the birds scatter – leaving the the eagle to alight, powerful, independent but alone – and ushering the song to its climax:
'All thoughts are prey to some beast.Sweet desires and soft thoughts: return to me.'
If we plod through this record as though we're dealing with simple metaphor/personification, we run into trouble. Where's Callahan in all this? What represents what? Tempting questions. But probably futile ones.
Let's return, then, to this idea of coexistence.
And let's think about the title of the record: Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle. In the context of 'All Thoughts Are Prey to Some Beast', that's clear enough. Independence and power (the eagle) are good; but togetherness is also good. Hence the desire that the contradictory states of independence and companionship be reconciled.
But – like the gibberish refrain of 'Eid Ma Clack Shaw' – this only makes sense in a dream world. And the speaker is left trying to pull together fistfuls of air.
The record's title, and the eagle's lament, and 'Eid Ma Clack Shaw' ... In all of these, there's the sense of Callahan the storyteller pushing together two repelling magnetic poles. Of straining at a metaphor or a narrative to try and make it contain and reconcile experience. Which it ultimately fails to do.
So what's the answer?
'I started telling the story without knowing the end', says the speaker of opening song Jim Cain. 'I used to be darker, then I got lighter, then I got dark again. And something too big to be seen was passing over and over me.'
The record ends up hinging upon storytelling. Running in counterpoint to 'Eid Ma Clack Shaw' and 'Too Many Birds' – with their ultimately futile struggle for comprehension of and control over emotion – is the notion of control through rationalisation and narrative:
'I looked all aroundAnd it was not written downI will always love youMy friend'
... is the opening of 'My Friend'. And there's something very touching about this – the sense of liberation by which the song is buoyed – the empowerment of the simple declaration. It's no coincidence, I'd argue, that this is the record's most upbeat, straightforward song.
... And this in turn makes a sort of sense of the album's expansive final song – 'Faith / Void' – and its gently insistent repetition: 'It's time to put God away.'
More than just a paean to atheism, isn't it a kind of epiphany? A realisation that there's not an external power to be found that will easily reconcile all contradictions, pull together all strands.
God, in this sense, is just another image, another entity onto which the speaker (is it Callahan, by now?) may project – and through which he may imagine completion (or 'peace'). And the song is about retreating from the struggle for resolution or control or comprehension – in favour, perhaps, of simple (bittersweet) reflection.
And it don't get much more Ash Wednesday than that.
What did I warn you? Like a bloody essay, I said. And that's what you got. Your fault for persevering, innit?
So, to summarise: if you haven't bought an album yet this year, end your streak (you fucking streaker, you) with Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle. And if you have bought albums already this year, add this one to your shiny horde. Here's an iTunes and an Amazon link (both UK) to speed you on your way.
Without any doubt at all, I say that this is the best album I have heard so far in 2009.
[And may I close with my customary gentle reminder: Heavy Soil provides mp3 downloads so that you may dab a little of Bill Callahan onto your tongue and sample his muskily complex flavour. If you're licking your lips after this amuse-bouche, please buy the album.]