Bill Callahan- Dream River 8.8
The cover of Bill Callahan’s Dream River looks like the sort of painting you would find in an old, dusty attic somewhere. Callahan’s music often has that sort of vibe. Rolling slowly along, oblivious to the pace of others, his songs are earnest, sincere, and spare. Although the emotions he expresses veer between bliss, loneliness, melancholy, and wonder, Callahan’s dry baritone never strays very far in tone. His often brilliant lyrics, are about as direct as they come. And even though he almost always sings in the first person, his beautifully firm voice makes him sound like a sort of fly-on-the-wall narrator. The instrumentation on the album is simple; usually just a couple layers of electric guitars, a rhythm section, maybe some vibes and keyboards, and the occasional fiddle. But the less-is-more approach Callahan uses with his voice extends to the music as well. Often, a few well-placed lead guitar notes or some fiddle are just enough to give a track a stunning emotional punch.
A veteran songwriter, Callahan’s discography stretches back to 1990. The 18th album of his career, Dream River is an incredible display of Americana at its finest. There’s country, folk, and all sorts of other sounds to be found here. And at the center of this slowly moving piece is always Callahan, with that unmistakable delivery.
"The Sing" opens the album on a low note. The first lines are "drinking/while sleeping/strangers/unknowingly/keep me company", delivered incredibly slowly, as if to emphasize the lack of purpose he feels. He continues by singing "the only words I’ve said today are beer, and thank you", which he punctuates by simply stating "beer. thank you." three more times in a completely deadpan tone. The song’s swampy groove perfectly matches the tone of its lyrics. "Javelin Unlanding" picks up the pace. But it has a sort of serious, cheesy chorus that ruins the song a little. Fortunately, its the albums weakest track. "Small Plane" is about as wonderful as a love song gets. Here Callahan is happy and stable in romance, and lets the music flow at a gorgeously easy pace. Each little lead guitar flourish adds depth to the infinitely relaxing song, as Callahan repeatedly tells you "I really am a lucky man." "Spring" has a similarly relaxed rhythm, but a darker undercurrent, punctuated with some more great guitar leads.
"Ride My Arrow" has a bit of a Neil Young feel to it, with a lively riff that careens into a somewhat jazzy rhythm that ends up being the song’s anchor. "Summer Painter" shows Callahan vividly speaking of a summer job painting ships. "Rich man’s folly/and poor man’s dream/I painted all of these/while beavers built dams all over me" is merely an example of the amazing lyricism he shows throughout the song, one of the album’s finest. "Seagull" shows him to be almost a little playful, with a somewhat bluesy progression at first. Soon though, the track gets more hazy and unpredictable. But throughout, it maintains a laconic beauty. But in the end though, this all feels like a setup for "Winter Road." An absolutely devastating ballad punctuated constantly by lonesome cries from a fiddle, Callahan describes coming home after seemingly being lost. "Time itself/means nothing" he sings, as he searches for something to hang onto emotionally other than what he has lost. Its a truly stunning closer to an album that is almost impossibly graceful and measured.
Other than one track, this is a slow record. But despite the similar pace of the songs, this album is always engaging, beautiful, and deeply moving. Its one of those albums where every note has a distinct purpose, and a lot is made with relatively little. And it really shows the staggering talent of Bill Callahan, a singer/songwriter who should really be the definition of the term “hidden treasure.”