Bill Callhan CD/LP reviewed by James Jackson Toth

Music Reviews
Bill Callhan CD/LP reviewed by James Jackson Toth
Apr 3, 2009, 14:12


BILL CALLAHAN Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle CD/LP

It's hard not to take one of the central lyrics of “Jim Cain,” the first song on the excellent new Bill Callahan album Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle, as something of a mission statement: “I used to be darker / Then I got lighter / then I got dark again,” Callahan sings in his trademark deadpan. True, Callahan's last few albums have been relatively brimming with positive vibes—the man who'd written whole songs about insane highway patrolmen, girlfriends who demanded to be smacked around, and roadkill was suddenly more interested in pledging his love to family, friends, and the world at large. It is a testament to Callahan's deft writing hand that the sea change in subject matter seemed less a detour than bona fide artistic growth. As even the song arrangements grew more meticulous, congruent to these new themes, Callahan always maintained his wry and reflective narrative voice. The songs on Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle return to a more stridently dour but no less insightful Callahan, recalling some of his excellent and best-loved work as Smog. One early exception to the downer nature of the album is the bouncy “Eid Ma Clack Shaw,” which takes a cue from a Seinfeld subplot and turns it into an unashamedly lighthearted tune about the nonsensical nature of the nighttime muse. On “Too Many Birds” Callahan sings the refrain “If you could only stop your heartbeat / For one heartbeat” over and over, cleverly staggering the words so that they fall on different accents each time, like the hiccupping heartbeat of the lyric's subject. This sort of writing is becoming less and less common, and why Callahan, who's always been a true “songwriter” in the mold of Tom T. Hall and Leonard Cohen, is a man apart from his more image-reliant contemporaries. Recent albums have drawn attention to Callahan's lyrics by placing his voice higher in the mix, which is a trend that fortunately continues here. The album does dip just a bit toward the end, with the superfluous interlude “Invocation of Ratiocination,” followed by the nearly ten minute “Faith / Void,” which despite the provocative title (who knew Smog was into hardcore?), finds Callahan doing something he rarely does—overreaching. Despite this, Sometimes We Wish We Were An Eagle is (so far) easily one of 2009's best albums, with just enough surprises to pique the interest of fence sitters, and plenty of the casual, dry brilliance that keeps us longtime fans coming back. [Drag City]

-James Jackson Toth


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