Bill Callahan seems to have existed as a quiet enigma on the peripheries of the mainstream for several decades. Prolific in his years as lo-fi noise-rocker Smog, since 2007 he’s just been going by ‘Bill.’ More recently, the man himself took to the stage at Queen Margaret University’s student union in Glasgow.
Callahan’s music is as solipsistic and cerebral as it is light-footed and expansive. Hailing from Maryland, he started out making homemade tape recordings on a four-track during his Smog years, and tightened up his sound after signing to Drag City Inc. Callahan is at his most darkly introspective and ironically self-indulgent on songs like ‘Teenage Spaceship,’ off 1999’s Knock Knock, on which he sings of darkly anonymous, late-night rambles. He croons in his deep baritone like a lone wolf howling at the moon; “flying around, the houses at night / a teenage spaceship.” His eleventh studio album, Supper (2003), shines with understated melancholia. “You spent half of the morning just trying to wake up / half the evening trying to calm down,” are the murmurous opening words on ‘Feather by Feather.’ On ‘Vessel in Vain,’ his “ideals have got [him] on the run.” It is hard to pin Callahan down geographically. He has an uncanny ability to stay in bed and yet traverse entire continents in a single sitting.
While much of his early work seems stifled in its own bedroom-confined solipsism, Sometimes I Wish I Were An Eagle (2009) sees Callahan step outside to breathe in the wide, flat expanses of American tundra.This collection of nine songs is a treasure trove of finely woven folk tunes. The album fuses imagery of the American west with lyrics of wry existentialism. ‘Too Many Birds’ is a playfully sober lament about identity-loss amidst an inescapably collectivising mass culture. Callahan literally builds the latter half of the song word by word until a single line unfurls: “if you could only stop your heartbeat for one heartbeat.” ‘Jim Cain,’ is a spare meditation on the search for transcendence. Gilded strings swell and subside until they reach a point of ecstatic climax, a single note shimmering above all else as Callahan utters a sober request: “remember the good things I’ve done.”
His latest album, YTI⅃AƎЯ, (reality, spelt backwards), evokes a similar introspection. The lyrics are even more skeletal and abstract. Tropes are often repeated, as if seeking their own affirmation, over purring electric guitar and twinkling piano. Again and again on ‘First Bird,’ “we are coming out of dreams / as we are coming back to dreams.” Callahan exists in a world in which illusion is inescapable and imagination reigns supreme, where “dreams are thoughts in lotus and chains.” For Callahan, there is only one thing that can ultimately be asserted with surety. “Yes I am, your lover man,” is the statement that continues throughout the song ‘Coyotes.’
It was this surreal internal landscape that was carefully constructed onstage in Glasgow, in front of a rapt audience. Between lulling symphonies and effervescent improvisations from a full band were pleasant crowd-interactions, Callahan being affectionately told to “get tae fuck,” after expressing his gratitude for those who had assembled. Callahan is the rare instance of a musician of artistic integrity whose authenticity has remained intact even as his success has grown. It was a pleasure to witness him in action.
Image via Eitan Orenstein