If there’s a lesson to be gleaned from the arc of Bill Callahan’s career, it might as well be this: there is dignity in understatement. Once a 4-track troubadour, Callahan has grown into middle age gracefully, trading in the intimacy of low fidelity for a more refined sense of self-expression. But even as his arrangements have become increasingly ornate — and his production cleaner and sharper than ever before — Callahan has retained his knack for deprecation and quiet, off-kilter observation. It should come as little surprise to any longtime followers that Apocalypse — the third studio album since abandoning the Smog moniker in favor of his given name — continues this slow march toward maturity. And, as expected, Callahan continues the transition with warmth and humor, and without even the faintest trace of self-importance.
Sure, there are moments that give pause, such as the jazzy, boisterous “America!,” where initially it seems that Callahan is making ill-advised forays into heavy-handed political protestation. When faced with a portentous title like Apocalypse, the listener can be forgiven for reading a little too closely in the hopes of finding greater meaning. But Callahan manages what Laurie Anderson — and many others — could not; he not only makes the political personal, but also connects his private epiphanies to universal experiences. Who else but Callahan could follow a free associative list of surreal and absurdist military references with as succinct and sly a line as “Everyone’s allowed a past/ They don’t care to mention?”
But “America!,” with its woozy electric guitars and heavy, metronomic drumming, is Apocalypse’s exception. The album is otherwise ruminative, soft, and subdued, full of lilting flutes and mournful fiddles. As is to be expected, a few mantras stand out: “One thing about this wild, wild country/ It takes a strong, strong/ Breaks a strong, strong mind,” Callahan sings on “Drover,” repeating his lyrics, turning them over and over, as if trying to make sense of his own passing thoughts. On “Riding for the Feeling” — one of the most tender and conventionally pretty songs of Callahan’s 20-odd-year career — he makes a disarming confession:
I kept hoping for one more question
Or for someone to say,
“Who do you think you are?”
So I could tell them.
Never the most expressive vocalist, Callahan attempts a rough baritone croon as he sings those lines, and the effect is nothing short of heartbreaking. As an artist who has built his career on confessional songwriting — though, lately he’s eschewed the offering up of embarrassing personal details, tossed-off references to bad habits, and peculiar sexual peccadilloes — there’s something unexpectedly moving about his desire to redefine himself, to acknowledge the endless struggle over identity.
Maybe this isn’t how Callahan intends to be interpreted. One song later — on the Astral Weeks-y “Free’s” — he wonders whether the consequence of freedom is “being derided for things I don’t believe/ And lauded for things I did not do.” Such is the risk of deeply personal writing, but, then again, thinking of the way Callahan repeats certain phrases, pulling and shaping them, he appears to be less afraid of being misinterpreted than he does of failing to make sense of himself.
“My apocalypse,” Callahan sings on two songs, seemingly in reference to his failure to represent himself properly. But the tone of his voice, calm but still cautious, implies that he’s somehow found a way to make peace with his own shortcomings. The listener, however, need not make any such compromises. Apocalypse is keenly observed, distinctly humane, and predictably idiosyncratic; it is yet another minor triumph from an artist who, despite his constant self-deprecation, seems incapable of offering up less than his best.