Bill Callahan: Apocalypse (Drag City)

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Bill Callahan: Baby's Breath
Bill Callahan: Apocalypse (Drag City)

After his last exceptional album Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle (a Best of Elsewhere 2009 album) it was hard to imagine how this Americana singer-songwriter -- who previously recorded as Smog -- could remain on the margins of mainstream acceptance.

That the album demanded, but also commanded, attention might just have put him once more into the too hard category for most.

This time out Callahan and his small band -- guitars, fiddle -- doesn't make matters any easier as he pulls his dark baritone through seven low-key songs of elliptical, mysterious lyrics which mostly refer to Americana and the land. The opener Drover adopts an almost galloping rhythm as Callahan goes out to his cattle and thinks of "a better way, someday" in this "wild wild country" which can break a strong mind.

The track America -- delivered over a coolly addictive repeated beat and stuttering, rough-edged prog-rock guitar lines weaving through the middle distance -- is an odd one: Callahan looks at his country from the outside ("I watched David Letterman in Australia") and tongue-in-cheek says he wants to be home to that grand and golden land, then lists country music greats (Captain Kristofferson, Sgt Newbury, Sgt Cash) who have served their country and says "What an army! What an airforce! . . . Afghanistan, Vietnam . . . "

This is one bound to confound. A bitter-sweet love letter perhaps?

Elsewhere there are some slippery jazzy textures (Universal Applicant) and Riding for the Feeling is a gentle and affecting ballad of farewell where that voice rumbles around the melody and romantic electric guitar buoys up the otherwise melancholy mood.

The eight minute-plus One Fine Morning right at the end opens with Callahan again on horseback riding out "just me and a skeleton crew". He rouses himself from his bed over a gentle piano figure, then the mood gets darker but also becomes a more holy rumination on Nature and there is "no more droverin' " because of the baby . . .

Like a minimal, suggested song-cycle, Apocalypse belies its title. Such doom'n'darkness as that title suggests is only implied and although the earth turns cold and black in the last minutes of that final track Callahan is wondering about greater things.

Far from an easy album again, but Callahan has struck out on a distinctive path where the night is lit by stars and the lamps of houses in the distance across the plains or through the forest. And all a man can do is ride on, carrying his thoughts with him and looking for a better way, someday.

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