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Bill Callahan: Apocalypse

Bill Callahan: Apocalypse

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Bill Callahan

Apocalypse

Rating: 3.7/5.0

Label: Drag City

In many ways, Apocalypse sounds like a typical Bill Callahan album. All of the musician’s post lo-fi primary traits are there, just like they’ve been on Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle, A River Ain’t Too Much To Love and others: the slow, deliberate baritone; the meticulous, carefully constructed arrangements; a lyrical and narrative ability on par with the masters of the craft. Unless Apocalypse is your first venture into Callahan or Smog, you’ll have a good idea of what you’re in for on the musician’s latest release.

But there is one striking difference, and it goes a long way in making Apocalypse instantly unique; its song structures are easily among the most varied of any Callahan release. The opening guitar of “Baby’s Breath” is immediately reminiscent of numerous Callahan songs, but that’s where the similarities end. A complexly layered song, it incorporates an undulating pace complemented by a slightly abrasive electric guitar that punches through the song’s fabric until it eventually becomes the dominant instrument. By contrast, Callahan’s vocals never move beyond a disconcerting crawl, seemingly oblivious to what’s going on all around them. “America!” is even more aggressive, its electric guitar joined to layers of distortion over which Callahan invokes references to the military and war in rapid-fire succession, ending with a biting observation that could apply to either someone’s personal or a country’s shared history, or more accurately, guilt: “Everyone’s allowed a past they don’t care to mention.”

Occasionally the album becomes tedious as Callahan exhibits a Costello-like tendency for too-cute and clever wordplay (“How could I run without becoming lean?/ It was agreed/ It was a greed” and another series of rhymes that involve a punk, lunk, drunk, skunk, hunk and monk). Other songs almost feel deliberately obtuse: both “Universal Applicant” and “Free’s” are notable for their airy, breezy arrangements – on the latter song you’ve got flute, whistling and Jonathan Meiburg playing piano – but are also difficult to embrace, with both songs apparently offering nebulous commentary about the nature of freedom. I think.

Apocalypse ends with “One Fine Morning,” an eight-plus minute guitar and piano ballad that is perhaps Callahan’s finest album closer since “Let Me See the Colts.” It completes a mini-thematic arc that began with opener track “Drover” – a driving, tense tune with references to a “wild, wild country,” stampeding cattle and Springsteen-caliber hard lands – and finds Callahan once more returning to the types of nature-specific images that connect his albums, where men ride out in the badlands in a “country kind of silence” and the earth threatens to turn cold and black. It ends with the musician singing the record’s catalog number (“DC 450“) and somehow turning it into a lament, or at least something more meaningful than just letters and numbers that appear on the album’s spine.

Another mostly acoustic ballad, “Riding for the Feeling,” presumably finds Callahan in a hotel room listening to his songs and dryly declaring them “my apocalypse.” These songs aren’t that, exactly, but they do often imply some form of finality and self-reckoning. Apocalypse is not the most consistent album Callahan has released, but aside from his lo-fi work, it’s in many ways his most sonically atypical. If there’s been a tendency by critics and listeners to zero in on Callahan’s lyrics at the expense of the music, a few more releases like Apocalypse will likely change that.

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