The following is the plot synopsis of the film that plays in my mind when I listen to Bill Callahan's new album, Dream River:
Fade in on a guy sitting at a hotel bar. He's surrounded by people he doesn't know. He senses that he is experiencing a lucid dream. The repetitiveness of his patter with the bartender — "beer … thank you … beer … thank you" — sets his mind adrift. He's in bed with a woman. (Is this a sex dream? No, it's a death dream.) He's flying an airplane with the woman as his copilot, and feels an intense, perfect love. "I like it when I take the controls from you, and when you take the controls from me," he tells her. He falls from the sky and is in the dirt. (This is definitely a sex dream.) All I want to do is make love to you … with a careless mind, he thinks. The man suspects that he is the man and the woman, and he's also an eagle in the sky and a small animal the eagle is holding in his grasp. He realizes he is in complete control of what's happening in his dream — the problem is that the other people in his dream who are also him realize this, too. They blame him for causing a hurricane, just because he happens to live by the sea. He leaves the sea in the form of a seagull. He wonders if he will ever wake up. "I mean really wake up," he says aloud. He's driving down a dangerous road — as a man and not a seagull — and listens to a Donald Sutherland interview on the truck radio. He knows he's awake now. He can see himself, as if in a movie. It's an establishing shot: He's headed toward a bright light, possibly another car. The blinding lights of the kingdom can make you weep, he thinks. He tells himself to "just keep on, keep on." Fade out.
Two weeks ago, I phoned Bill Callahan to talk about Dream River for roughly 30 minutes. I was sitting in my bedroom, and he was standing in a men's room at some college campus in Austin. Maybe I was the one having the lucid dream — who answers the phone in a public restroom in waking life? — but the recording of our conversation says otherwise.
Right away I told him my theory about how the eight songs on his latest album (which comes out September 17) tell a nonlinear story operating on dream logic, and how the plot appears to be a metaphor for life's journey from a solitary existence to romantic companionship and then back to a solitary existence for the inevitable trip into the eternally dark void. After I rattled off my long-winded spiel, I feared that he would be silent for about 73 beats and then curtly dismiss me for reading too much into his modestly stitched, ruggedly handsome, and deceptively low-key country-folk tunes. Perhaps he would point out that I had wrongly inserted a comma between "sleeping" and "strangers" in the opening line of Dream River's first track "The Sing" ("Drinking while sleeping strangers unknowingly keep me company"), even though his jazzily glacial vocal delivery on the record strongly implies a comma. I mentally prepared myself for him to explain condescendingly that I had foolishly interpreted the album title literally.
I was preemptively bummed by this, because I love Dream River and I love thinking about Dream River. For as long as Bill Callahan has put out records — 17 years as Smog1 and eight under his proper name — he hasn't ever made one this hopeful. I used to think 2011's Apocalypse might be his best record, but Dream River in some ways feels like a superior sequel. Apocalypse and Dream River are the most musically similar albums that Callahan has ever made. Each was recorded in a matter of days in an Austin studio incongruously called Cacophony Recorders. They place Callahan's dulcet baritone high in the mix, so you can practically feel his softly murmuring lips sidle up to your eardrums. Both feature muted instrumentation that is punctuated by sudden outbursts from a skittering electric guitar or a fluttery flute. The difference is that Apocalypse is about coming to terms with dying in your own arms, while Dream River allows for the possibility that someone might be there to hold your hand. If the former is like No Country for Old Men, then the latter is Fargo.
When Callahan started out in the late '80s, Smog was an apt descriptor for the inscrutable haze of perverse noise, found sounds, rudimentary instrumentation, and anguished, affected vocals he framed in the form of poisoned two-minute songs. Onstage, he was often described as awkward, even as he stood with excellent posture and a respectably neat haircut. As the '90s progressed, Callahan evolved more or less into a conventional singer-songwriter, if the term "conventional singer-songwriter" allows for the occasional lo-fi ditty about Star Wars sung over a mutilated sample of the Rolling Stones' "Honky Tonk Women."
Back then, he was likened to other artists associated with home recording, like Pavement and Guided by Voices, and later Will Oldham and Callahan's girlfriend for much of the decade, Chan Marshall of Cat Power. It wasn't until Callahan settled in Austin in the mid-'00s that he started sounding like the heir apparent to a grand tradition of world-weary and proudly eccentric American troubadours. He references some of those people in the sardonic "America!" from Apocalypse: Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Mickey Newbury. (You could add Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark to the pile as well.) The transformation began around the time of Callahan's final album as Smog, 2005's A River Ain't Too Much Love, which ranked among the most accessible and best recorded music of his career at that point.
From the beginning, ominous nature imagery has appeared in Bill Callahan's songs — fruit bats and strawberry rashes and blood-red birds and stampeding colts. It conveyed a collision of majestic beauty and base ugliness that became Callahan's defining aesthetic; it also partly explains why he's perceived as a dour miserablist, even when he's clearly being a goofball. (The goofballiest example being the cover of 1999's Knock Knock LP.) "His voice is low and his songs are slow, so it's easy to mistake him for being sad," Pitchfork's Mike Powell once wrote of Callahan, in an attempt to argue (as many Callahan fans have tried and failed to do) that this guy is actually a super-funny humanist. It's just that his wit tends toward the dry ("A Man Needs a Woman or a Man to Be a Man") or mordant ("Dress Sexy at My Funeral").
All the while Callahan has cultivated — perhaps unwittingly, though surely not totally unwittingly — a romantic image as an intense, reclusive, emotionally insular enigma who can better articulate on record the roiling cauldron of love, hate, lust, resentment, fear, and loopy humor boiling over in his brain than he could ever relate in casual conversation (or in interviews). Callahan talks like he sings — he has a steady, slightly aloof cadence that's reminiscent of distant fathers and contract killers. Scores of journalists have thrown up their hands trying to decipher him. In a 2011 profile, the New York Times's Ben Ratliff wrote that Callahan "radiated reluctance" and fretted that "my recorder had trouble registering his voice."
So I was primed for Callahan to impassively receive my hackneyed theories and blithely shoo them away. But he didn't do that. Instead, he did the unthinkable, not just for him but for most musicians: He expressed gratitude for the interview process as a way to clarify his own thoughts about the record he'd just made. It was as if I had just recited his dreams back to him, and explained how they might make sense.
"I'm impressed and happy that you got that from it because no one really has, including me," he says. "I think about things in a more abstract way — colors and moods and landscapes and shading and stuff like that. That's why interviews can be somewhat daunting, just because I am capable of thinking like this if someone forces me to, but it's against my nature. In one of the first interviews I did [for this album] a couple weeks ago, I realized what you just said basically: The first and the last song are sort of reality and the middle songs are all either the dreams or fantasies or memories of the guy who is sitting at the bar. By the last song, he's back to reality. But it isn't supposed to be death, [though] I guess death is the strongest reality there is."
Conducting a phone interview in a bathroom (as opposed to interviewing via e-mail, his preferred method of interacting with the press) represents a decisive move for Callahan outside of his comfort zone, which is indicative of how the 47-year-old has restructured his life in the past couple years. When I complimented him on his greatly improved singing, particularly on Apocalypse and Dream River, he admitted that he has only recently started approaching his vocals and guitar-playing as crafts that need to be constantly honed and nurtured.
"I never, ever really used to think about it that much until the last few years, because I was mostly into the lyric writing and album artwork and stuff like that," he says. "That may sound crazy, but I didn't really think about singing or playing guitar. I was just thinking it was a part of it that had to be done. And then a few years ago I started becoming much more interested in singing, focusing on that. So I guess it shows that I actually put in some work."
Now Callahan tries to sing every day if he can. But he has pulled back his songwriting. While writing Dream River, Callahan made a conscious effort not to let the creative process consume him as it once did, when he would "sink into this thing for, like, 16 hours, just sitting there working, and the rest of the world goes black." Instead, he forced himself to stop writing after a few hours so that the world could regain some of its color.
"For this record, I thought, I want to find another way. I want a richer life," he says. "I've gotten used to just tearing myself away now. Because I know that once you plant that seed, I think that your unconscious does — I think I should credit my unconscious, basically give it songwriting royalties, because I really think you do a lot of work while you're doing other things. I think if you're planting the seed, your brain is sorting out all the things that you've built up and presented to your unconscious, laid out on a table. Then your unconscious just goes to work while you're doing other things, and then you can come back, check in for another hour. It seemed to work for this record."
I bring up a quote from an interview Callahan did with Pitchfork in 2007, around the time he released his first album under his own name, Woke on a Whaleheart. "I used to be an artist," he said. "I don't think I am right now. I don't know if I ever will be again." Callahan seemed to be putting his identity as Smog — and the tortured, somewhat adolescent baggage that came with it — to bed in order to move forward with a new, more adult persona. But six years later, does he really no longer see himself as an artist?
It depends on how you define "artist."
"I don't know if you saw that Pollock movie? That type of approach to art where you just destroy yourself and your loved ones, like dying for your art — I think I used to embrace that philosophy," he says. "But lately, especially with this last record, I've been trying to — because I don't want to die alone — find a new way of still making good work, but not at the expense of the rest of your life."
I should probably explain why Bill Callahan was standing in a men's room at some college campus in Austin. He was in the midst of shooting a video for the Dream River track "Small Plane," and it was proving to be another exercise in tamping down his need for control. "I always want [my music videos] to be really great, but it's kind of hard to do one without very much money and I usually have to collaborate with someone because I don't know how to work the cameras and stuff, so there's also a large element of compromise, which I'm not used to," he says. "Because usually when I make my records, I'm the boss. It's like a fantasy of mine to make one good video, so I think this one's going to be good, because I have a good film person who is into my concepts and my ideas and everything."
"Small Plane" is Dream River's most affecting track. It's a straightforward love song about trusting another person so completely you put your life in her hands, and she puts her life in yours. "Sometimes you sleep while I take us home," he sings. "That's when I know / we really have a home." On paper, rhyming "home" with "home" might read a little hokey, but hearing Callahan sing it is a different story. The language is simple, but the meaning is sort of everything that matters about being alive.
Callahan demurs when I ask whether "Small Plane" is based on the current state of his love life. "I tend to think about things in sort of — I get interested in themes and focus on those. And they may be spurred on by real life, but also, there's just a general interest in certain human conditions," he says noncommittally.2 He tells me it's the only song he's ever written that appeared to him in a dream. He woke up, wrote it down in three minutes, and like that, "Small Plane" was finished.
"I've been doing pretty good with [remembering my dreams] lately," he says. "I think if you take these magnesium supplements, it's supposed to help you remember your dreams, and I've been doing that."3
We chat for several more minutes and then I let Callahan return to the video shoot.4 I am now alone again in my bedroom. Later, I go back to Dream River, and a lyric from the song "Ride My Arrow" leaps out as a thesis statement for the whole record: "Is life a ride to ride / or a story to shape and confide / or chaos neatly denied?" It appears that Callahan has chosen the first option. He has planted seeds in his unconscious and consumed supplements to help him harvest what grows there. He wants to be the pilot of his life, and also ride in the passenger seat while someone he loves does the piloting for him, so that he can dream his dreams while drifting safely toward the light.