Since ditching the Smog name, moving to Texas and becoming a father, singer-songwriter and former misanthrope Bill Callahan has leaned into his new metier as a ray of sunshine, turning a spotlight on his surroundings and in return being illuminated by them. His latest album dwells on dreams (“thoughts in lotus”), death (“the gurney wheel screamed down the hall”) and the human condition (“do what you got to do”). Its backwards title suggests that it’s a reflection on reality, how we construct it and how we might deal with having “blood on our hands up to our elbows”.
The temptation is often to fillet Callahan’s work for knockout quotes. But this singular artist’s matter-of-fact poetics exist in active conversation with his painterly music, in which careful guitar work is fleshed out by a numinous band. Much of the playing here feels appealingly understated, given the sizable showing of backing vocalists (“6 or 7”) and lots of brass. This atmosphere of diffuse beauty is offset by livelier tracks – such as Natural Information or Bowevil (based on a traditional) – that double as thumping singalongs. Naturally, the former’s video is a six-hour visualiser of ambient sounds, not the cheery song itself. Coyotes and seagulls join Callahan’s menagerie of recurring references, while the zen koan-like Horse provides a very different take on equines than the Smog classic I Break Horses.