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Bill Callahan
Sometimes I Wish I Were An Eagle Daniel Ross , April 17th, 2009 08:18

This is maybe one of the first Bill Callahan records that benefits from a real lack of engaging context. It's simply the next one after the last one. There's no "well, why's he not called Smog anymore?", no "what's going on with him and Joanna Newsom?" and certainly no "God, why's he so depressing all the time?" Without these distractions from the progress of a continually developing artist, we can finally see an unblemished (sort-of, anyway) and unclouded picture of Bill Callahan.

Stately, sweet and, where it counts, truly progressive in his instrumental augmentations, Callahan has crafted one of the albums of his career. It's not immediately turning over any new creative leaves, but the gentle tweaks to his scarf-like songwriting go further than a total re-invention would. The opening 'Jim Cain' is reminiscent of 'Sycamore' from 2007's Woke On A Whaleheart, but it's a more considered affair. Defined by its ability not to appear too busy while harbouring a rustling bag of restlessness, it worms gradually. The oscillating guitar line remains constant, a gentle ostinato, but it's the arrangement that's the star. Swelling, Bernard Herrmann-esque chords of strings and horn accompany a change in refrain, chorusing violins stretch counter-melodies across that beaten voice. The continual crescendo is almost unnoticeable thanks to its slow burn — the music has the same effect on the listener's gradually liquefying heart.

Obviously, this being Bill Callahan, there are a number of lyrical barbs cast across the swelling sounds. Themes of nature carry across from Woke On A Whaleheart (as well as the occasional chord sequence), but here they take a notably darker turn. 'Too Many Birds' tells of a feathered friend unable to find a place — "you fly all night to sleep on stone, to return to the tree with too many birds", he sings. It's an interesting line. Callahan's long been an outsider to indie balladry, and were it not for his ever-heightening level of fi, he might be considered an outsider in the Shooby Taylor/Wild Man Fischer sense of the word. Nowadays, he contends with the most tonal, the most ear-friendly of them, and maybe there's a slight constraint to his comfort zone. Indeed, leaving the tree is a prevalent issue on Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle. 'All Thoughts Are Prey To Some Beast' sees him launch his voice out of its lowest register for once, and there are constant references to flights and returns. If he's going to be accepted by the mainstream, it sure as hell won't be without a fight.

So the only way to banish any thoughts of increasing accessibility is to terrify the listener, yes? On 'My Friend' Callahan manages exactly that, literally growling the title over a comparatively innocuous backing reminiscent of Paul Siebel. It's a frightening balance that he strikes, and one that dominates the whole record. Experiments come in the form of musical exercise, and chills come in the form of lyrical conceits that push stability to its limits. Even Callahan's trademark bass voice shows the strain, making for brutally lovely listening. Finishing on a fine example of this, 'Faith/Void' is purely beautiful, slow (like the rest of the record), and crawls towards its answers. Those answers might never be found, but the fact that Callahan's even asking is proof enough that he's at his very strongest here.