That kid who sat at the back of the class, seemingly almost monochromatic except for his Egon Schiele pink-tinged skin? You never heard of him again. You assume he was institutionalized after leaving school for the strange things he was rumored to be doing to the neighborhood pets in his bedroom. Or perhaps he even managed to drift along under the radar for a while until he finally did that hushed-up ‘something’ that got him put away for the rest of his natural days. It thrills my soul to think, that for someone in the world, that kid has wandered back into their consciousness as a bona fide dyed-in-the-wool purveyor of American song. The signs were already apparent on the aptly named ‘Supper’, the penultimate, most accomplished album of Smog’s career to that point. The songs were sumptuously crafted, achingly poignant or else chugged-along rockingly, teeming with an abundance of astute observation delivered in his trademark laconic style. After declaring his love for a watercourse, the Smog lifted, and along with it, so did his mood…albeit temporarily, making it easy to forget that this monochromatic, Egon Schiele-skinned kid used to do strange things to his tape recorder in his bedroom.
Callahan has become the sole survivor of Drag City’s original roster, standing alone as an enviable testament to their faith in experimental, discordant little upstarts. While it’d be sycophantically ridiculous to say that either of Drag City’s two Dans saw in Callahan what he has now become, they clearly foresaw that the ideas that fizzed & popped away behind that blank stare were always going to lead somewhere at least interesting. What IS increasingly interesting, is that this kid who terrorized tape recorders with make-do instrumentation, laying down fuzzy repetitive paeans to Insane Cops looming ominously in rearview mirrors, or the Son of God (who doesn’t drip acid and is not, according to Bill “a seminal member of New York’s ‘Go-Wave’ scene“) has become what might be considered…well, MOR.
Apocalypse follows in the more ornate feel of its two predecessors under his given name, but is more sparing in its production, while also providing the moment most reminiscent of his inaugural output in recent memory. Opening track “Drover” is driven by a galloping acoustic guitar, intermittently kicking-up an ascending violin, which catches-up alongside, before eventually soaring above & beyond it. Similarly “Baby’s Breath” is austere and traditional in it’s picaresque sprawl, but its with third track “America!” that a bridge between the disparate ends of Callahan’s career is presented. In it’s grinding, pistoning bass and seemingly half-improvised, arbitrarily-plucked, matter-of-fact lyrics it smacks of Smog’s origins: experimentation, riffing and building on a theme.
While on initial listens Apocalypse seems to be lacking the lush palette of its immediate predecessors, like any of his records it’s just another stop along a common continent, and even a lesser Bill Callahan album has more going for it than the best most anyone else has to offer. Despite the ominous title, Apocalypse starts seriously, but progressively lightens, especially in its lilting flute-strewn latter half. In final song “One Fine Morning,” after meandering around to the realization that he is “a part of the road… The hardest part” and punctuating it with “My Apocalypse,” Callahan draws the album to a close by repeatedly singing the Mantra of this release’s Drag City serial: “DC 450,” making it tempting to surmise this is the epitaph of his recording career. But knowing the unknowable-Bill, you’d probably be wrong.
“Forgotten Foundation” had “Bad Ideas For Country Songs,” in recent years good ones have become his stock in trade. While Smog was Sewn to the Sky, Bill Callahan is planted on terra firma, reporting back from among the various manner of life that gambols across its vast expanse. During his migration from Maryland to Texas, while it may not be popularly recognized now, Bill has risen from inauspicious beginnings to effortlessly joining the ranks of “Captain Kristofferson, Buck Sergeant Newbury, ‘Leatherneck’ Jones, & Sergeant Cash”.
At ease, Corporal Callahan.
Leonard Cohen – Songs of Leonard Cohen
Bob Dylan – New Morning
Van Morrison – Astral Weeks
Stream: “Baby’s Breath”