REVIEW: Bill Callahan - Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle

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Bill Callahan's second album after stepping out from his "Smog" moniker begins simply enough. "I started out in search of ordinary things," he half-laments on opener "Jim Cain." It's that half-drawl, half-smile, half-sincerity that Smog fans love. Just enough truth to hook you in and enough sarcasm to make you wonder how serious Callahan is being. For my money, Callahan reaches his apex with that sort of song writing on 1997's Red Apple Falls. And besides, no matter how Callahan may seem to invoke those times, on his latest Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle, there's no going back.

For starters, the production on this record is phenomenal. In those early days of Smog, production was a means to an end -- a functionality in and of itself. But, like The Mountain Goats, give Callahan enough albums and the studio begins to kick in. The mentality of taking a polishing a sound; drinking your orange juice without the pulp. So, there's lush orchestration: horns and cellos moving around the edges of Callahan's one hit guitar lines. The essence of what you know from Smog is still there - the singular looping guitar drawn thru space with lyrics and the signature baritone. But what was once earth-driven and crunchy is now high-minded, clean, polished.

It would be easy to lament this change. To say that "the early albums are better," but that's missing the trajectory. Lo-fi isn't the same as it used to be, and it shouldn't be. Something entirely different is going on here. The production values of earlier works made us focus on Callahan's lyrics, wrapping his vocal tone into our ears in lieu of the lushness that appears on Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle. In this album, we're forced to listen to both the music and the lyrics in a more complex and sophisticated way. This has mixed results. If the power of Callahan is his ability to keep us guessing -- to wonder if when he's serious when he says "all of my fantasies are of making someone else cum...on a horse" -- then the instrumentation works against him here. There's a regularity and a tone that pulls us away and the baritone becomes more of an instrument than a speaker of words.

On the other hand, it's a musically beautiful album. And still has those moments of keeping the listener on their toes. Particularly in "Rococo Zepphyr," which evokes Callahan's earlier "Teenage Spaceship" and is also probably about Joanna Newsom (see "Bridges and Balloons"), here the tune gets hijacked and turned around by the female background singer who simply coos "Rococo" while Callahan describes with bucolic alienation the hard fact of being left - "Maybe this was all it was meant to be." In fact, a lot of this album relies on a simple statement, flipped around by the music, fidgeted by instrumentation and left to land differently according to what is being spun around it. Instead of waiting for the words to change, we're left waiting for the music to change the meaning. It's a new chapter in Callahan's work and one that bears us sticking with and trying to adapt to as well.


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