Drag City Recordings
Having ditched the Smog moniker for 2007’s Woke On A Whaleheart, Bill Callahan emerged more ambitious, eager to try out new textures. Although Whaleheart was a slightly disappointing progression when compared to the consistency of Smog albums such as Knock, Knock and A River Ain’t Too Much to Love, it did signal a broadening of horizons. On Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle, Callahan once again pushes himself into the unknown. With the help of arranger Brian Beattie, he employs an abundance of instruments, most noticeably an impressive string section, to launch his once lo-fi literary miserabilism into lush, kaleidoscopic hyper-pop.
Initially, the panoramic sound draws you in; there is a confidence and ambition that demands attention. Hearing Callahan’s sombre machinations and simple guitar drenched in such finery has an addictive charm. Yet, after a few listens, it becomes apparent that Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle may have dazzled without connecting emotionally. The arrangements suddenly seem sensationalist, clashing with the dominant theme of uncertainty.
The opening track, Jim Cain, sees the album’s ambition realised; Callahan’s familiar rhythmic guitar strumming and idiosyncratic vocal is lifted by subtle, yet dramatic, instrumentation. Its refrain of, “I used to be darker, then I got lighter, then I got dark again,” is one of several examples of Callahan charting his personal progression and reflecting on his growth as an artist. Over the course of the album, Callahan returns to his favoured use of pathetic fallacy, in particular on the lovely, Rococo Zephyr, to inform his internal struggles. Ultimately, the lyrics amount to a collection of problems without solutions; statements without argument, questions without answers.
Callahan’s work remains captivating in its depiction of the struggle between the individual and the metaphysical, the introspective voice wrestling with the indefinable world outside. These conflicts explored through complex lyrics still work best when accompanied by a simpler, more direct musical approach. The Wind and the Dove here is an example of when the over-enthusiastic arrangements of Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle obscure the lyrics, detracting from the power of the metaphorical narratives. At worst, the mismatch of message and music can be nauseating. Maybe this jarring between the music and the themes is intentional, a manifestation of the uneasiness the lyrics suggest. However, this is undeniably an album of large scope and ideas. As Callahan attempts to find his position in an uncertain time, it is a positive gesture to espouse this turmoil in the elation of such overblown orchestral pop.
Originally published at SuitYourself Magazine in edited form.