Bill Callahan’s last album Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle was billed as a personal turn from a songwriter with a reputation for being cantankerously distanced. But when you come down to it, all of his music has seemed to emanate from an inward looking viewpoint – Eagle just felt a little more tender and human, with its warm strings and horns and loudly mixed vocals. It was a superb effort, proof that he was a songwriter who’d survived “maturing”, and had reached the point in his career where his self-referentiality had reached the status of an old familiar personality trait, as endearing as any poetic confession. His follow up, Apocalypse, has the appearance of being a move away from the personal toward the political, with a few songs which center around America’s past and a title which references endtimes for all.
That outward appearance establishes a setting more than a focus, though. In song, the titular Apocalypse is transformed into “my apocalypse”, and negates any assumed grand political trajectory. Instead, Apocalypse is about transition and transformation, starting with a drover and his cattle on a Western frontier and ending in a darkened Earth where the singer has died and taken his place as part of “the road”. This is an album of two halves, the first dark and unsettled and the second lighter and more peaceful. “Drover” starts the album off in the dusty Southwest, galloping along in perfect accompaniment to the story of a cowboy struggling with his cattle on a drive. This young man sets his watch by the city clock, which for him is “way off”, and accepts his fate as a man who will always struggle to direct his wild, internal forces. “Baby’s Breath” sees him still dusty, but settling down into domesticity, and from the titular plant Callahan brilliantly draws out multiple metaphors for lost innocence and a complete story arch. The almost-funky, dirty rave up “America!” is a conflicted celebration of America. Everyone wants to look fondly upon a place they call home, and it sounds like amid all the cultural highs (a roll call of great songwriters and their military ranks: “Captain Kristofferson – Buck Sergeant Newbury – Leatherneck Jones – Sergeant Cash”) and lows (the rhyming list of “Afghanistan, Vietnam, Iran, Native American”) he’s giving America another chance when he sings “Everyone’s allowed a past they don’t care to mention.”
“Universal Applicant” is the bridge between the dark and light sides, starting off all tense and ringing as it tells the story of a man adrift in a boat who frees himself of his bindings and shoots off a flare gun to try to capture attention. As he watches the flare burning in the air, his life flashes before his eyes in an awakening moment, but the flare ultimately comes down to land in his boat, sinking it along with varied pieces of his personality (cheekily rhymed in song as the punk, the lunk, the drunk, the skunk, the hunk, and the monk). As the boat sinks, the music’s tenseness transforms into a dreamy underwater smear, and from that moment on, the remainder of the album is relatively laid back and loose. This is the point where it seems like the true break with the past occurs, when a life lived as a series of phases is transformed into a life which values peace and reflection.
The second half is made up of a jazzy expose of the different meanings of the word “free” on the flute-colored “Free’s”, which is sandwiched by two slow burning and tender-hearted songs. The lament “Riding For the Feeling” follows directly after his awakening apocalypse, and sees Callahan explore the loneliness and disconnection of being a touring entertainer, always leaving and never staying. Concluding track “One Fine Morning” throws a few chords and Callahan’s voice together with a gospel piano, achieving a triumphant peace as the singer recognizes his part in the grander scheme of things as he leaves this plane, thinking of himself as a piece of the road that others will walk on. He brings it all home as he sings “DC 4 5 0” – the release’s catalog number – as the last words on the album, recognizing with tranquil satisfaction that his latest achievement will be a part of the record.
Sonically, the album dispenses with his recently more tidy arrangements for a live and loose feel, and particular credit should be given to Matt Kinsey who fills the stereo space with details fluidly played, and makes these tracks both more gallant and playful. The first half in particular is bold – with songs going through a number of shifts and momentum swings – and holds some of Callahan’s most distinct music, the first two songs of which (“Drover” and “Baby’s Breath”) could very easily end up as American standards in a slightly fairer and less musically-glutted world. The second half makes a play for a stately minimalism, but even so, its a stately minimalism punctuated by goodies like cymbal flourishes and textural guitar fills. It’s no secret that Callahan conceives of his work at the album level, taking a concept and filling it in with songs. Though at first the album title combines with the most strident track (“America!”) to seemingly announce a political commentary, it’s a misdirection if taken literally. This gem of an album follows a man through space and time as he questions and answers some fundamental questions. What is happening to me? How can I be significant? What does home feel like? The answer to these questions is the album Apocalypse, a fine addition to the canons of both Callahan and American music.