Reality (Drag City)
AFTER TWO ALBUMS THAT UNEQUIVOCALLY celebrated love, fatherhood, and not just the micro parts of life, the insignificant or soon passed, but the micro joys that come with them. After maybe three albums which used his well-recognised eye for detail, and a tongue willing to say some things others might feel impolite to raise in company, to marshal a world view that it wasn’t necessarily the worst idea to have faith in others and yourself.
And after moving from being described (unfairly but not wholly incorrectly) as a bone-deep sceptic on the border of misanthropy, to being seen (too blithely but not wholly incorrectly) as a born-again/born for the first time? engager in the discussions of relationships, of connections, of futures, Reality is a tempered adjustment.
Callahan is still a new believer, still a man daily being reset by things like seeing his son hand-in-hand with his daughter coming down the hall. Love still works, just like his baritone does in putting the case in intimate depth, with the languid resonance that feels conversational until it inexorably elevates to something touching. That's whether it be beautiful, as it is even in Everyway’s bloody frontier tale; more ominous in the ascending dread, increasing movement and hovering-with-intent male choir of Bowevil; or drawing you in almost against your will, as it does over a metronomic beat and psychedelic organ in Partition, among the “piles of shit and bone” and an acknowledgement that “You do what you've got to do/To see the picture/To touch the picture”.
What’s more, he’s said that he wanted this album to be a reconnection of life and thoughts beyond the practical – “We’re coming out of dreams,” are the first words we hear on the record, “As we’re coming back to dreams” – and to serve as a source for lifting up people coming out of the horror/dream state of nearly three years of Covid. He wants to give something to us.
You sure can hear it in Natural Information which – shockingly maybe – shimmies and grooves in soul guitar and dance-able rhythm section, brass swinging and pumping up our tyres, Callahan almost shaking with hip-snaking joy as he talks about the “state of deep contemplation” he’s enjoying. “Strolling my baby down the street/All I see is little feet/She sleeps, I dream/I dream natural information.” You can sense it in the Neil Young acoustic walk of Coyotes, an almost buoyant soul/folk moment which walks a line between waking and dreaming, which peeks at danger, but dissolves into declarations of love.
It’s there too in Planets, as stretched out in the sun in tempo, delivery and semi-distant muted trumpet as Callahan is in the lyrics where he has been “Staring at the sky/So long I forgot how to talk”. Even as that trumpet and then electric guitar bend shapes on the edge of discordance, there is nothing but good. “And the sun twirled and said goodbye everyone/And I felt so good just like salty crumb/Renewed, you know, for a second season.”
But you can also hear it in the empathy, the understanding, in what starts as a cocktail bar piano and brushed drums ballad, Naked Souls. Here we are introduced to a man who locks himself away because he “can’t stand all the naked souls/Everyone, naked as day”, with, Callahan leaving open the possibility that this man might “buy another gun/Or maybe he’ll become a policeman/Or kill one”.
This possibility, the world that makes for this possibility, rises in the twisting trumpet and trombone, is carried on the fast-shuffling drums, is worried in the progressing urgency. Naked they may be, but pure these souls are not.
Yet while there is still room for humanity in the response to it, Callahan hasn’t become oblivious to the corrupting edges of our lives, like that implied in the first half of Bowevil, and then exposed in its second half as the acoustic guitar and cymbals are each struck with rifling tension. Nor does he look away from the legacies of errors, or even evil, past, his unwillingness to forgive them infiltrating Drainface, which feels like Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds of two decades ago reshaping with a drop of bitterness an old English folk song.
As ever, in these captivating musical settings Callahan’s voice does its best work in understatement and space for our inference. Whether in domestic harmony or some wider societal disharmony, the rich timbre can subtly shade or brighten, can quietly exult or even more quietly suggest distaste, without removing our agency. His empathy though is not in doubt, and he invites us to share it.
Bill Callahan has been on a stunning run of quality albums. Reality adds to that list.
APPLE MUSIC: Listen to Bill Callahan – Reality