Bill Callahan - modern transcendental poetics
Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle is Bill Callahan's second non Smog or (Smog) release, and save for a bit lighter instrumentation and a generally pastoral approach to the music, the album delivers everything a fan could want. The album art first plays up the pastoral tone. It's an album that seems from the front cover on through the music to be transcendentalist. The photo is overexposed featuring horses grazing in a yellow-gold field of grass that extends so far behind them to a bank of trees that space is nearly infinite, but realistically limited before the horizon. With this image, a listener who knows Callahan's work, or even a new-adopter, can garner an idea of his music's nuances. Sparseness (open field), light but washed of flourish vocalization (overexposed) and a certain folksy down-home-ness (image content) are all his calling cards through years as Smog and on other projects. Those qualities and his thick, simmering baritone. The beauty is, that in releasing just his second album under no pseudonym, the album art shows the vulnerability associated with removing that protective moniker. The album states itself plainly and so does it begin musically.
The project as a whole just feels honest. A rambling storyteller's collection of anecdotes and poetic turns of phrase assembled to delicate, but deliberate musical arrangements. The guitar is relaxed and sometimes wispy. Horns and strings are present, but not to create a theatrical weight or add intense brightness. Instead the backing musicians enhance the pastoral scene, painting a backdrop that allows the imagination to easily project Callahan and guitar into that grass field from the cover. The album is not minimalist, but it is, again, transcendentalist. Callahan, like Thoreau and Emerson places his audience in an austere musical nature and asks them only to listen to the notes and ponder the lyrics. This is made easy through his deep, talk-sing vocals, as we don't feel compelled to concentrate on the melody and forget the poetics.
And poetry is really the album's heart and soul. This factor is most pronounced in "Too Many Birds," a song whose lyrics have already landed on a few blogs before this one, but one that is so brilliantly composed that it begs additional praise. Callahan croons, "Too many birds in one tree/
Too many birds in one tree/And the sky is full of black and screaming leaves/The sky is full of black and screaming" with a deliberate and calm affect. But, seriously! "Screaming leaves" has to be one of the best descriptions written in music, or for that matter poetry in the last few years. A "sky full of black and screaming" implies such turmoil that though not present in Callahan's voice, it feels tangible. And after all of this lyrical violence, the song breaks down/builds up to a final line: "If you could only stop your heart beat for one heart beat." Passionate words from a dispassionate voice that are moving in their dissonance.
All this said, appreciated the album academically does require a certain love of Bill Callahan's understatement. Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle is an incredible 48+ minutes of folksy indie balladry that might not always be your first choice for a party mix, or a driving album to work up an energized sensibility, but it is introspective. And damn brilliantly composed introspection at that.
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