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Bill Callahan

Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle

Rating: 4.5

Label: Drag City

It’s tempting to view Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle as just another entry in that long line of breakup albums, with Bill Callahan sorting through the wreckage of his split from pixie harpist Joanna Newsom. Amid all the horse/river/bird imagery that recurs throughout the album, its songs certainly serve up heavy doses of looking back, with a mixture of regret, disappointment and rueful bemusement. Leave that two-bit analysis to the armchair psychologists out there; such an approach sells this album far too short.

Whatever its inspirations, Sometimes I Wish is a remarkably understated and textured album. As an artist Callahan has never seemed particularly interested in confining his style. The primary consistency in Callahan’s albums is his speak/sing baritone voice; like fellow Drag City cohort Will Oldham, all other elements are negotiable. In his Smog and solo guises Callahan has explored lo, lo-fi, folk and pop, though the crimes committed on Rain On Lens still aren’t forgivable. Previous effort Woke On A Whaleheart was fairly optimistic and contented – or at least as optimistic and contented as Callahan gets – so it should come as no surprise that Sometimes I Wish is primarily pensive and rife with mournful undertones.

Sometimes I Wish is unassuming and unimposing, a near-perfect blend of guitars, keyboards, strings, percussion and occasional horns that Whaleheart merely hinted at. These are the type of songs where the listener can’t help but listen to with just a little bit more attention; the songs’ emotions and intentions unfold slowly and reveal themselves more fully with repeated listens. With its sparse guitars, weary strings, hushed percussion and half spoken/half sung vocals, opening track “Jim Cain” sets the template for most of what follows. Name checking the fiction writer best known for The Postman Always Rings Twice, Callahan offers a depiction of someone brooding over the past with an eye to the present, equal parts resignation – “I used to be darker/ Then I got lighter/ Then I got dark again” and disappointment – “Things didn’t pan out as planned.” “Eid Ma Clack Shaw” mines similar thematic territory, the song playing like a walk through the bleakness and dark comedy of someone’s mind. Callahan lays on the equine imagery pretty thick, contrasting the song’s somber image of someone haunted by a memory with a bouncy arrangement and humor, as the narrator’s dream of his lyrical masterpiece is revealed to be little more than the nonsensical babble of the song’s title. “Rococo Zephyr” is arranged beautifully, with acoustic guitar, keyboards, and strings used to devastating effect. Moments of joy are tempered and measured in the song; the woman who laid next to its narrator “like a branch from a tender willow tree” is presumably long gone, the narrator left with little more than a bittersweet moment of clarity: “I used to be sort of blind/ now I can sort of see.”

Austin-based musician Brian Beattie provides string and horn arrangements that are as integral to the album’s mood as Callahan’s lyrics and vocals. Subtle strings and horns float throughout the gloom of “The Wind and The Dove,” while “Too Many Birds,” with its central image of a wandering and lost bird, features a string section that heightens the song’s impact. “My Friend” and “All Thoughts Are Prey To Some Beast” up the album’s intensity level via strings and guitars that stab through Callahan’s growls, both songs building tension like a wave that crashes and then recedes slowly.

Still overall the album’s vibe is one of disappointment, regret and restlessness. When Callahan sings that “it’s time to put God away” in closing song “Faith/Void,” it’s hard not to view it as a summary of the conflicted emotions that preceded it, a sentiment of deep resignation or perhaps an optimistic acknowledgment that things haven’t completely gone to shit. For an artist who has tended to jump genres with seemingly perverse glee, Sometimes I Wish is nearly flawless in its approach and execution.

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