“Well everyone’s allowed a past they don’t care to mention/America! America!” deadpanned Bill Callahan on 2011’s Apocalypse, with that wry Frank Zappa meets Hemingway cruise he’s got going on these days, as he slowly approaches singer-songwriter genius. That specific line follows the mention of four of the land of liberty’s biggest disgraces – “Afghanistan, Vietnam, Iran, Native American” – but is just the same an allegory for his own trajectory, ditching the dissonance and fuzz of his iconic lo-fi roots in Smog for the clear, crisp poetics of a series of records under his birth name.
Not that the 47-year-old is in a state of burying the past, but his fourth record, Dream River, is simply a different beast than its predecessors, completely absent of some of the last guitar aggressions from Smog, chiseled down to a geode of an Americana lullaby. A woodblock, a dusty fiddle and a meandering riff open the curtain on lead-in “The Sing,” Callahan recounting a “drinking while sleeping” day in which he said only two words, repeating them with the kind of contentment that makes a thinking-man thirsty:
Whatever he’s up to these days, the remaining seven tracks on the record paint visions of a character much lighter of the baggage he once carried. “Small Plane” is a pastel crooner, leading its most wistful stroke about an endearing co-pilot flight without a navigational system to a meditative metaphor on failure becoming obsolete – the aeronautical version of that ‘beer’ and ‘thank you’ mantra:
While on “Spring,” Callahan perhaps reveals what all this bliss may be tied to, in the record’s most sexual, cacophonous state, whirled with flutes, shakers and bongos, that all he wants to do is “make love” in the “fertile dirt” with a “careless mind.” Similarly on the acid-jazzy “Seagull,” the ‘weight of the world is slipping away’ for the greater good. And closer “Winter Road” is as close to Callahan has ever gotten to R&B swoon, concluding he’s “learned when things are beautiful to just keep on,” as that dusty fiddle makes a return to kill the sentiment softly.
There are brief moments where he double-backs at some clouds in his brain, as with the soft percussive rhythm storms of “Ride My Arrow,” pairing “the taste of pilgrim guts” with the notion of life being confidential. Or even on the sexually prodded “Spring,” he compares the season to a “severed hand.” But they’re predominantly a form of dark comedy, needed to set up the sweet release of some sort of tension.
Callahan did recently mention he got engaged, so we may deduce that Dream River isn’t some lesson in wishful peaceful thinking. But even if it is, here’s to another future day gone by on two words, ‘beer’ and ‘thank you’, and another clear vision from a rising master of Americana solutions.