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Bill Callahan - Apocalypse

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Artist: Bill Callahan

Album: Apocalypse

Label: Drag City

Review date: Apr. 4, 2011

Apocalypse is the second consecutive Bill Callahan record you could label a western, though it has about as much in common with its predecessor as Ford with Fuller or Leone with Hawks. Sometimes I Wish I Were An Eagle is like a Technicolor epic — brass accents, swelling strings and an odd, lingering hollowness at its core. Apocalypse, on the other hand, is more like an 80-minute Ranown picture¬ — sinuous, slippery, less accessible, more satisfying.

The new record opens with a welcome bit of the old stomp. Driven by hard acoustic strumming, shivering fiddle, and a percussive thump that mimics thundering hooves, Callahan rides spurs-in on “Drover.” It’s a paean to big skies and the freedom to roam (“I set my watch against the city clock / It was way off”), a familiar preoccupation from the Smog days (“Let’s Move to the Country,” “Running the Loping,” etc.). At the same time, there’s a heightened sense of urgency. The instrumentation is locally rooted — mesquite, cactus and sage — but the implications are unmistakably broad. “One thing about this wild, wild country,” Callahan sings in his stoic baritone, trying to stay a colt’s-length ahead of the closing of the west. “It takes a strong strong / It breaks a strong strong mind / And anything less makes me feel like I’m wasting my time.”

You can almost hear that same frontier crash against the Pacific, roll back, and begin eating itself on “America!,” a darkly bouncy protest number. Callahan hasn’t sounded quite this comically loose since Dongs of Sevotion, firing mordant, faux-jingoist exclamations (“What an Army! What an Air Force!”) over burning contrails of electric guitar. Rhyming “Vietnam” with “Native Ameri-can,” it’s the cycle’s slackest moment and a beat-poetic earwig. However, coming on the heels of “Drover” and a fragile, banjo-plucked vision of domestic compromise (“Oh young girl at the wedding / Baby’s breath in her hair / A crowning lace above her face / That will last a day before it turns to hay”), it’s a laugh that catches in the throat. Soon enough, the ambivalence turns like meat spoiling in the sun (“Ain’t enough teat, ain’t enough teat, ain’t enough to eat”). Callahan hits a cul-de-sac; The Frontier Thesis devolves into a quest for an ever-smarter smartphone. What can any of us do, and keep our dignity, except to ride out?

The taut, jazz flute-flecked “Universal Applicant” and torch song warm-up “Riding for the Feeling” are gestures away from the national, the political, and toward the personal. But it isn’t until “One Fine Morning” that Callahan puts all the pieces together. Someday the man can assemble a greatest-hits package and call it Horse Songs — this is just one in a long line, but it’s such a beauty, the song that the 10-minute “Faith/Void” from Eagle only faked at.

Riding in like a drover, full of steely resolve behind a thundering herd, our cowboy hero rides out with his reins across the saddle, voice full of wonder. “The mountains bowed down / Like a ballet in the morning sun,” Callahan sings over twinkling piano and brushed snare. And then, just as before, he becomes the horse. (“When the earth turns cold and the earth turns black / Will I feel you riding on my back?)

Wrapping up, it sounds a little like he’s asking: “Do you see? Four or Five Ho…” As in horsemen? Of the apocalypse? But he’s only singing the catalog number. D-C 4-5-0. You feel a little silly for straining. But really, thank god. Who gives you anything this good to strain about any more?

By Nathan Hogan

Other Reviews of Bill Callahan

Woke On A Whaleheart

Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle

Rough Travel For a Rare Thing

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View all articles by Nathan Hogan

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