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Bill Callahan - Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle

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Artist: Bill Callahan

Album: Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle

Label: Drag City

Review date: Apr. 13, 2009

For 20 years, Bill Callahan has been perfecting the art of hiding in plain sight. In one sense his discography reads like a prolonged coming-out party. While the earliest records reveled in concealment – clattering chords, clipped vocals, and cloaks of tape hiss – the more recent movement has been in the direction of forthrightness. The arrangements have grown more streamlined, the deadpan baritone is way out in front, and the first-person is frequently wielded. Despite fits and starts, it’s been a slow march towards soul-baring: Smog, and then (Smog), and now, we’re told, Bill Callahan.

But that’s not really right, or if it is, it’s far too simple. In the arrangements, in the mixing, in the lyrics themselves, there are gestures towards leveling, but the songs remain compelling because of their undercurrents of uncertainty, their layers of disguise. “I reared and bucked / I could not put my rider aground,” Callahan laments on “Eid Ma Clack Shaw,” a standout track from this new record, his lucky No. 13. We know Callahan loves horses – he’s told us that he tames them (“I Break Horses) and yearns to watch them run (“Let Me See The Colts”) – but here he actually becomes one mid-song. Until this point, the bouncing bass line, staccato piano and Callahan’s own invitation to intimacy have drawn us in (“Last night I thought I felt your touch / Gentle and warm, the hair stood on my arm””), but suddenly he’s doing his damndest to throw us off.

The whole record is like this. All of Callahan’s records are, to some degree, but this one especially. Of course, this quality alone isn’t sufficient – A River Ain’t Too Much to Love was both more successful and more direct – but it certainly doesn’t hurt. In this way, Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle is very much like its title: a riddle masquerading as a confession – or maybe the other way around. It takes secondary sources to know that the gossamer opener, “Jim Cain,” is about, or from the point-of-view of, hardboiled crime writer James M. Cain. Yet even with this knowledge, listening feels a little like eavesdropping on a cryptic conversation, in which allusions – “I used to be darker, but then I got lighter, then I got dark again”” – feel profound, even while their meanings are obscure.

Eagle’s orchestral instrumentation is worthy of mention – particularly because the last two records featured shambling rock arrangements (the disappointing Woke Up On A Whaleheart) and stripped-down Texas folk (A River Ain’t Too Much To Love). But the swelling strings and french horn counterpoints on Eagle work almost counter-intuitively – instead of blanketing Callahan’s voice, they function more often than not to isolate it, to draw attention to his words. There are exceptions – the rushing drums, swooping violin, and Callahan’s growling delivery make “My Friend” the most balanced, least prickly track of the bunch. But it’s that prickliness that makes this record intriguing, and durable enough to reward repeat listens. Aside for the pulsing throb of “All Thoughts Are Prey To Some Beast,” the uneasy bounce of “Eid Ma Clack Shaw,” and the twinkling beauty of “Jim Cain,” this isn’t one of Callahan’s most melodically interesting outings. Nevertheless, his variety of masks, his purloined letter writing, his hide-and-seek with identity – all of this is relentlessly compelling.

It’s hard to know quite how to feel, for example, after close to 10 minutes of Callahan imploring that “It’s time to put God away” on “Faith/Void,” a syrupy ode to atheism. Without doubting the earnestness or the wisdom of his plea, there’s something uneasy about the way the song sounds blissfully content on some days, and mordantly schmaltzy on others. Callahan’s records are so often good because they toss their deadpan barbs and aching revelations at unexpected moments, catching the listener on his heels. On Sometimes I Wish I Were an Eagle, these moments are harder to anticipate, and harder still to see – existing beneath words, and in-between bowed strings. This record gives in sparing portions; it takes some time to seem like anything at all. It starts out, as Callahan tells us, “in search of ordinary things,” but the harder you listen, the less ordinary any of this feels.

By Nathan Hogan

Other Reviews of Bill Callahan

Woke On A Whaleheart

Rough Travel For a Rare Thing


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