bill-guitarahan-1024x681I first heard of Bill Callahan when I asked Ryan Stoyer (whom, I believe, writes 50%- 80% of this publication) if he had ever heard of Jandek, the elusive Houston singer/songwriter. We were assembling copies of Analog Revolution outside of Swayze’s Venue one fateful Friday night when I popped the question. In response, Ryan’s eyes lit up and he said, “Yes! Bill Callahan loves Jandek!” Within 10 minutes, Ryan thrust upon me an article he had written on Callahan in AR #1. I had so many questions. Ryan’s comparisons and descriptions concerning Callahan were intriguing, but also confusing. Ryan promptly told me to follow him into the record store, where he showed me his personal Bill Callahan/Smog vinyl stash.

 

I went home that night with six records by this mysterious Bill Callahan, which Ryan put in a precise listening order. The first record was Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle. What follows are my initial thoughts and feelings on the album. SPOILER ALERT: I liked it.

 

  1. Jim Cain: I am mesmerized from the opening track. The build-up from just acoustic to a full band (with sensual strings) is engrossing and hypnotic. Lyrics such as “I started in search of ordinary things/How much of a tree bends in the wind?” give the impression of being deceptively simple, when really they are a deeper, purer form of poetry. Wistful, but not whiny. BC’s gravelly, restricted range takes its time, which forces the listener to sit back, close their eyes if they can, and open their ears. I get the feeling whatever sadness or melancholy — or any emotion, really — Callahan will emit in this album will be justified and true.

  2. Eid Ma Clack Shaw: I feel sorry for second songs on albums. They either have a lot of slack to make up for, or big shoes to fill (pardon the cliche). Well, if Jim Cain’s feet were a size 9, Eid Ma Clack Shaw’s gnarly metaphorical feet are a 13, easily. I know we’re not supposed to think that art can be perfected, which we shouldn’t, but goddamned if this song doesn’t come close. The lyrics are splendid mix of absurd and profound (“Love is the king of the beasts/And when it gets hungry it must kill to eat”); the piano and drums are persistent and catchy; the strings are full-bodied yet piercing, and steal the nonsensical show during the chorus. I hope Bill Callahan maintains this superb originality and energy throughout the remainder of this album.

  3. The Wind and the Dove: As if it weren’t already evident, BC secures his position as a master of melancholy, and an improvement on my middle-school heroes e.g. Nick Drake, Elliott Smith. Hell, Bill Callahan even makes Conor Oberst look like a Cub Scout. This song is meticulously mysterious, with its hypnotic acoustic riffs and shadowy organ interludes — not unlike a song you might hear in an empty Midwestern bar on a Saturday night, the neon signs glowing for no one.

  4. Rococo Zephyr: Fragile and whimsically sincere, this song is a soundtrack to a dream of a girl you met once at a party and write letters to. The language here is glowing but never overbearing. Bill’s words are subtle and comforting, as they match the sleep- inducing (in a good way) strings. “I used to be blind, but now I can sort of see.” If you cannot relate to this closing lyric, I have to question your ability to feel human.

  5. Too Many Birds: The chord progression and overall build-up here sound familiar, but it still somehow draws me in. Bill’s images of black birds and stones are minimal but effective, as is his voice. It’s the core of all of his songs: deep and blue, like an ocean. You are overcome by it.

  6. My Friend: The opening riff is Paul Simon-esque, and the almost tribal build-up is really quite artful and absorbing. Bill’s howl on previous songs is now a growl, as he assures: “I will always love you… myyy friend.”

  7. All Thoughts Are Prey To Some Beasts: Oomf. Right out of the gate, this song progresses well. Once again, Callahan is doing this tribal percussion thing and I dig it. The strings and electric guitar are distant at one moment, then stabbing the next. This sounds like Bill’s version of an origin story.

  8. Invocation to Ratiocination: I’ll come out with it…I’m not a fan of instrumentals on albums. I’m not completely sure why this is. Maybe it’s because I am writer and I need words or at least a voice to ground me in a song. But this 2:42 long interlude works well, and is probably the most haunting and sinister-sounding track on the record — the sort that will creep into my head when I’m driving alone late at night when the moon is yellow and full and menacing. I can definitely hear some Jandek influence here.

  9. Faith/Void: Much like second songs, last songs on albums seem to be under a lot of pressure. Listeners expect to be sent off feeling a little lighter, comforted, or perhaps motivated and inspired. I couldn’t have asked for a better song to wrap up this record, a beautiful ditty that is as serene as it is catchy. It’s practically a lullaby for atheists, this song, with its repeated lyric “It’s time to put God away….” A nice existential ballad I wouldn’t mind falling asleep to night after godless night.

Final thoughts: I’m nearly speechless by the beauty and originality of this album. Since gathering and typing up my thoughts on Eagle, I have listened to the other records Ryan gave me, and I’m grateful that he started me off with this one. Although it’s more accessible and less dense than Smog/Bill Callahan’s earlier work, it’s not necessarily “easy.” It will make you think and make you feel things. It will make you sing or whistle along. It may make you cry. It will get under your skin and invade your psyche, undoubtedly. You will be haunted by its brilliance and soulfulness, but only if you meet Bill half way.

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