Bill Callahan‘s songs always come from the same perspective, but over time that view has widened to a panorama. He’s never been much for realism, once preferring dadaist mantras (“I Am Star Wars”), eventually taking on a kind of over-the-top absurdism revealing kernels of universal truth (“Dress Sexy at My Funeral“) and occasionally taking on a sort of outlaw mysticism (“Summer Painter”). Only through recent albums like Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest and Gold Record has Callahan given a glimpse of more low-key domesticity, but fed through a filter of situations that sometimes defied belief, like “The McKenzies,” in which a kindly couple mistake their neighbor for their dead son. There’s always a poignant takeaway at the end of the journey, but for four or five minutes, Callahan will challenge both your perspective and your faith in his reliability as a narrator—regardless of how inherently trustworthy his baritone might seem.
Callahan takes the broader view on his new album YTI⅃AƎЯ, reflecting our current era of anxiety and malaise, most of us having reached our wit’s end at some point in the pandemic era if not the immediately preceding years. It’s probably not lost on anyone that the album’s title is written backwards, as however most of us would define “reality” has been interrupted and upended in major ways. But Callahan’s aim is neither commiseration nor an airing of grievances, but as he said in a press release, “to rouse people — rouse their love, their kindness, their anger, rouse anything in them.“
The Callahan of YTI⅃AƎЯ is the same husband and father of recent albums, protective of his flock and tenderly, libidinously reminding offering the reminder “I am your loverman.” But his door is open, his welcome mat is out, and there’s a more universal sense of comfort in his words, even through the fragmented lens through which he often peers over the horizon; in “Everyway” he offers a commitment to camaraderie through squishy viscera, crooning, “We warmed our hands in the corpse of a wild horse…at least we’re all in this horse together.” He offers affirmations of self-care on “Partition”: “Microdose, change your clothes, do what you gotta do.” Though there are just as many warnings as words of comfort, as in “Naked Souls,” wherein those who isolate themselves become subjects of deep concern (“Maybe he’ll buy another guy/Or maybe he’ll become a policeman or kill one“).
Though Callahan’s gaze grows ever wider, his compositions remain as beautiful and lush as ever, adorned with jazzy guitar chords and piano on standout “Coyotes,” wrapped in clarinet on opener “First Bird,” and bursting with a bright flash of horns on “Natural Information.” They’re also songs that take time to reveal themselves, many of them comprising a dynamic journey within the full expanse of their five- and six-minute runtimes. And true to Callahan’s motivations, they’re also often rousing, though rarely so direct. YTI⅃AƎЯ is a warm, even soothing despite the wandering nature of his songs and observations. His door may be open, but you might still need to find your way around here and there.
Label: Drag City
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.