Bill Callahan: Reality review | Alexis Petridis's album of the week

(Drag City)
The US singer-songwriter turns his experiences of love and contentment into a kind of beatific philosophy – tempered by his awareness of the forces that threaten it

The 19th album by Bill Callahan – or the 23rd if you count the lo-fi cassette-only releases he put out in the days when he called himself Smog – comes with an accompanying statement. In it, the 56-year-old singer-songwriter addresses his post-pandemic audience: people who, as Reality’s opening track beautifully puts it, are “coming out of dreams … coming back to dreams”. “It felt like it was necessary to rouse people,” offers Callahan of the motivation behind Reality’s 12 songs. “Rouse their love, their kindness … it just takes a little nudge to get your head back on track. I wanted sounds and words that made you feel and lifted you up … I went for horns, because horns are heralds, triumphs … I wanted multiple voices.”

Bill Callahan: Reality album cover
Bill Callahan: Reality album cover Photograph: pr handout

Rousing love and kindness? Sounds and words that lift you up? There was a time, not all that long ago, when anyone who knew Callahan’s work might reasonably assume any statement along those lines had been issued with a sardonic raised eyebrow. He was justly acclaimed – indeed, Callahan might be the most consistently acclaimed writer to emerge from the early 90s world of off-grid US indie music – but not for the kind of thing he’s talking about here. Laughter in the darkness? Absolutely. Lacerating pen-portraits and painfully acute fixings of romantic and existential woe? Most definitely. Music to rouse love and kindness and lift you up? Not so much.

And yet, listen to him on this album, employing his baritone to depict the simple joy of watching his son holding his baby sister’s hand, of hearing the dawn chorus, or seeing a pair of “little feet” sticking out of a pushchair. He expounds on an esoteric brand of personal spirituality that enables us “to get in and out of what we’re living in”, imagines the spirit of his late mother watching over her grandson on Lily, and contemplates reincarnation and animism on Coyotes as well as the power of what he calls “natural information”, hymned on the song of the same title as a corrective to “two million years of data”. If, on paper, the latter reads perilously close to something that Ian Brown might bellow at you, it really doesn’t sound like it on record: it rolls breezily, joyfully along, complete with airy female backing vocals. Clearly, we are some distance from the Callahan the late comedian Sean Hughes once offered to introduce on stage with the words “miserable bastards of the world – welcome our leader”.

Bill Callahan: Coyotes – video

In truth, Callahan’s worldview started leavening around the time of 2013’s Dream River, although the huge shift came with 2019’s Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest: “Love changed me,” he sang on an album filled with paeans to marriage and fatherhood, a path he travelled down further on Reality’s predecessor, Gold Record. Here, the listener never wants for moments that soar. Planets’ saga of spiritual rebirth (“I felt so good / Just like sudsy chrome / Renewed, you know?”) concludes with three minutes of suitably roomy and blissed-out improvisation; First Bird gradually builds from Callahan’s voice and guitar into a soft swirl of sound, the instruments of his backing band weaving loosely around each other; Coyotes is backed with a languid, eyes-half-closed acoustic guitar strum, tumbling drums and delicate piano.

Even so, there are limits to Callahan’s mood of contentment. On Partition, his largely acoustic band settles on a droning, insistent two-note riff. Arranged differently, it could sound smoothly hypnotic in the manner of Krautrock, but here it feels agitated, punctuated by flurries of twitchy drumming, suggesting that the means of coping with modern life listed in the lyrics – from meditation to microdosing – are sticking plasters rather than remedies. The other emotion his accompanying statement talks about rousing is anger, or rather, “a better anger, to get out of this … dissociated rage that destroys the community”, a subject Reality takes to with considerable gusto. Naked Souls launches itself at basement-bound keyboard warriors, complete with intimations of bloody revenge. There’s something particularly pointed about Everyway, with its blackly comic depiction of sailors shipwrecked off the coast of Callahan’s native Maryland forced to warm their hands “in the corpse of a wild horse”. “At least we’re all in this horse together,” he notes mordantly, which sounds like a deliberate echo of a platitude regularly trotted out during the pandemic.

The album ends with Last One at the Party, which initially sounds like the kind of character assassination Callahan once specialised in, but could just as easily be a song mourning a friend who has died by suicide: it turns on your interpretation of the lines “he always said he had to go, we thought he’d never leave”. It’s up to the listener to work it out as they go along, something Callahan, with his beatific philosophising tempered by bursts of fury and bitterness, also seems to be engaged in. Accompanying him for the hour that Reality lasts makes for an endlessly fascinating journey.

This week Alexis listened to

Cadet – What You Do (To Me)
Cadet appears to be an 18-year-old from Texas. What You Do (To Me) is simultaneously familiar – it sounds like late 70s two-step soul – and odd: it also sounds like a much faster song played at the wrong speed.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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