Bill Callahan Bill CallahanApocalypse
I used to worry about Bill Callahan. Really. Worry. He seemed possessed with such uneasy vulnerability: intoning devastating musings, through swathes of tape hiss. When a man drawls that as a seven year old he “wanted to live in a bathysphere”, I believe you have legitimate cause for concern (however vehemently he denies autobiographical accuracy). With “Apocalypse” however, my anxiety is beginning to dissipate.
Callahan’s quivering voice has dropped to an assured baritone, rich and warm like a rugged Leonard Cohen. The Cohen comparison extends to his frequently laconic aphorisms ( “Riding for the feeling / Is the fastest way to reach the shore”) and enduring wit ( “Afghanistan, Vietnam, Iran, Native American / America! / Well everyone's allowed a past they don't care to mention”). The vocal sounds between the words are equally commanding. The tuts and tsks, the breaths and inhalations, belie an unwavering intimacy. He repeatedly elongates a vowel sound beyond comprehension, hollowing it of meaning: whilst simultaneously infusing it with a spectrum of intensity. You can feel his breath; he has a way with plosives.
Musically, “Apocalypse” is masterfully uncomplicated. Callahan layers flutes, fiddles and electric guitars with unabashed abandon. The kind of sophisticated simplicity that is only garnered through experience. Yet his melodies are often undermined: an unsettling beat, a restless piano. Like vintage Thrill Jockey, instilled with the foreboding sensibilities of The Dirty Three.
Every one of Bill Callahan's albums shelters at least one devastator. A song so gut-wrenchingly affecting, that your mouth accepts temporary custody of your heart. “Apocalypse” is no exception. I challenge you to hear “One Fine Morning” without losing a heartbeat. Gloriously cinematic, it plays out like a bittersweet reprise of the album it closes - referencing the preceding songs and offering a possible motive for the release’s title. With “The Curtain Rose And Burned” one sees an Apocalypse in its purest sense - the disclosure of something hidden. Rather than a final battle, this is an exultant Apocalypse, full of promise and expectancy. “One Fine Morning” also invites an unexpected comparison: early Van Morrison. Of course, in tone and timbre they are poles apart; but one can see a similarity in form and quality - the extended repetition of a two-chord pattern, the seeming spontaneity of the enigmatic meditations.
There will undoubtedly be those who reject his burgeoning confidence - those who equate vulnerability with “authenticity” perhaps. Callahan appears to respond to the charge – consciously or not - in “Baby’s Breath”: “How could I run without losing anything? / How could I run without becoming lean?”. Undoubtedly “Apocalypse” is a far cry from the awkward vulnerability I worried for. The alarming confessions of an interloper ( “Whenever I get dressed up / I feel like an ex-con / Trying to make good”) have made way for the skillful observations of an accepted guest ( “I asked the room if I'd said enough / No one really answered / They just said, Don't go, don't go”). Regardless: they are no less affecting. Sure, he's no longer an outsider; but he's still transcending the crowd.