Dream River is the fourth studio album released by Bill Callahan under his own name, rather than Smog, since 2007. While these four albums have certainly not done away entirely with the darkness that flows through, and sometimes floods, his earlier recordings, they have let in more natural sunlight, as Jon Raymond put it with regard to 2009’s Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle (SIWIWE), in a Bomb interview from the same year. Natural sunlight, as opposed to artificial lighting: that seems right to me, even more so in terms of Callahan’s last record, Apocalypse, one of his strongest pieces of work to date, and probably my favorite among his records, up until now, the new record, Dream River, anyway. Dream River is less evocative of wide-open spaces and magic hour illumination than its predecessor, rolling, as its title suggests, from one tightly cropped fantasy reality to the next, still traveling music, but often tenser, songs sung like spells to ward of some ill wind pushing in from just beyond the horizon.
Callahan is always on the move, moving being more essential than being. He describes that movement in what seems like a personal reflection, and in terms of the darkness and light his work is sometimes measured in, during “Jim Cain,” from SIWIWE: “I used to be darker, then I got lighter, then I got dark again.” It’s hard not to read this in terms of Callahan himself, even if it should be attributed as well to an alter ego called Jim Cain. Apocalypse zigged light, Dream River takes us back somewhere slightly darker. Dreams a bit darker — in the sense of obscuring rather than enveloping evil — than any apocalypse, than any end, all ends being fragile, and provisional as opposed to the forces revealed in passing of dream images.
Another lyric comes to mind, too, in terms of situating current Callahan, from Apocalypse’s “America!” In this very strange and thrilling, fuzz-guitar-strangled song about his homeland, he makes reference to sergeant (Johnny) Cash, buck sergeant (Mickey) Newbury, captain Kris (Kristofferson), and Leatherneck (George) Jones. An American tradition of songwriters is given, one that rides the borderline between country and rock ‘n roll. The links with Newbury seem especially tight, as made clear on Callahan’s cover last year of his “Heaven Help the Child,” each favoring at times a style where choruses may well come, but they often seem subject to the whimsical flow of lines that may or may not lead to them. The river of song may arrive at a waterfall and it may not.
In the same interview with Raymond, Callahan says he doesn’t know what goes on when he writes songs. “I’m a blind sailor listening to the seagulls’ wings to know which way the wind is blowing,” he says. And the seagull becomes another of his characters, another version of himself, on Dream River, in a song called “Seagull,” which begins light-heartedly lamenting and celebrating, simultaneously, the allure the barroom: “A barroom may entice a seagull like me / right off the sea / right off the sea / and into the barroom.” The playfulness slips into a slightly psychedelic reverie, starting with Callahan singing about the dream river, then wandering alongside that river, gradually making its way back to the seagull, rounding off nothing.
Dream River is full of Bill Callahan singing things that anyone in his or her right mind would want to here sung in his increasingly warm, weathered baritone. It’s become an instrument especially effective at expressing authority and perseverance, wonder and deep affection for those who one has found harbor in. Some favorite lines: “The only words I’ve said today are ‘Beer’ and ‘Thank You’”; “You looked like world-wide Armageddon while you slept”; “I don’t ever want to die.” The last, plain and universal as it may seem, is given a resonance that stays around by Callahan’s voice, presented as it is as the first line of “Ride My Arrow.” That song, like a number of them here, rolls over an insistent groove, fired in this case with a number of sharp guitar licks, one scratchy and funky, the other spacious and reminiscent of the one that made Will Oldham’s rendition of Springsteen with Tortoise such a memorable emotional black hole.
Dream River is bookended by its most loose, country moments, and in between dives into different climates of experience. Hand drums and flute, reverb, and rising tides all fill the record. Spaced out, sometimes, a little funky here and there, brought down to earth again and again in straightforward songs like the meditation on an aerial romance, “Small Plane,” or closer “Winter Road.” The heaviest tracks are “Ride My Arrow,” “Spring,” and my pick among a set without much weakness to mention, “Summer Painter.” The hand drums and droning guitar lines give it a sort of voodoo feel, not quite Dr. John or anything, but slipping in among dark forces all the more slyly for its restraint in taking us someplace uncanny. A tale of a summer spent painting boats, it gradually turns stormy and loud, hinging on the arrival of a hurricane that the narrator gets out of town just in time to miss, hinging as well on the narrator’s question of who he works for, the rich or the poor. The song hangs together on these, in an intoxicating mood of irresolution, unrelenting, a reminiscence far afield from nostalgia.
Bill Callahan has been going from strength to strength as himself, so far as I’m concerned. On one of Dream River’s catchiest songs, “Javelin Unlanding,” I wonder if he is painting a self-portrait as javelin, launched at birth, landing at death, nothing to do but move and cut through the air, creating new movements as it does so. If that strange image, which flies itself with a mysterious motion from the rest of the lyrics, is matched to Callahan’s work, I think we have to say the javelin is still on its way up, slicing through darkness and light alike, no eyes to eye arrival. But the river is, of course, the better metaphor, flowing, itself and yet never composed of the same assemblage of water molecules in the same place. One song flows into the next, they belong to one another, to Callahan, to those who pass through them. Finished and set free, they are themselves and passages to their successors.