Dream River revolves around a two-word phrase, and Bill Callahan repeats it for you about five or six times in the first song to make sure you don’t miss it. Sitting in a bar alone but for the sleeping strangers around him, he recalls in “The Sing” that the only two words he’s said all day are “beer” and “thankyou.” From there, he takes that simple exchange (asking for a beer, receiving it, and giving thanks) and runs with it, touching on religion, Marvin Gaye cf. erryone’s shared humanity, travelling, love (adjective and verb), and the act of singing itself. It’s definitely among the most compelling songs he’s ever written, but more importantly, it might be the most Bill Callahan song in existence. Like it, Dream River revels and dwells upon a world built by and comprised of twinned reciprocities, shaped by a deep, occasionally throbbing desire for real, tangible, practical stuff (for want of a worthier phrase).
By far the most “folk-songwriterly” record in his canon (which is saying something; this is a guy who covered traditional folk song “In the Pines” halfway through the Bush administration), Dream River is a collection of low-stakes, high-value songs that plays out mostly like an answer to the questions that plagued 2011’s Apocalypse. That record spent a lot of time thinking hard (about freedom, America, purpose) and leaning on the land — Callahan did a lot of riding and walking at the time, trying to figure stuff out, basically — but Dream River feels like exploring that feeling and the ultimate purpose first mentioned in “Riding for the Feeling” — that is, the destination reached through moving, which is moving itself. Although Dream River might feel like a misleading title for something so earthy and bound to practical concerns, it makes sense; after all, when both things cease to flow, they cease.
These ideas of motion, reciprocity, and action get played out alternately in stories and more oblique narratives, but the symbols are constantly being iterated, whether it’s a plane landing or taking off, the wind blowing in or back out, the sun revolving, or in “Spring,” putting the restlessness of an unconsummated season to bed by, well, going to bed. (In the dirt, naturally.) Likewise, uncertainty gets explored in the opposite, of something coming unresolved, be it the doubt and worry of anticipating a lover’s inevitable death, represented here through the unnerving image of a javelin unlanding itself, or the ominousness of war brooding over “Ride My Arrow,” a folly built on blowing people off a worthwhile path.
Callahan has always been extremely deft at getting at the heart of a character’s motivations, at sketching out vignettes in which someone is briefly, obliquely illuminated, be it the prison officer in “River Guard,” the college professor in “Riding for the Feeling,” or the newcomer in “I Was a Stranger.” Here, the stories are governed by these principles. On “Small Plane,” Callahan delicately traces out the simple, loving, practical reciprocity of a couple coming together through a teacher showing a student how to fly a plane, with the flying, ritualized, solidifying their feelings for each other. When he sings “I like it/ When I take the controls from you/ And when you take the controls from me,” it feels like drawing a perfect circle with your eyes shut. The song recalls “To Be Of Use” from his 1997 album, Red Apple Falls. On that track, Callahan remarked that “All of my fantasies/ Are of/ Making someone else come,” showing that the best way to make someone come is to take them there with you.
Looking back, that Smog song is an important turning point in his discography, both bringing in a heap of rural signifiers and signalling the desire that seems to motivate Dream River: the need to feel useful, “Like a corkscrew/ Like a horseshoe.” The folly of such uselessness is played out in the squally “Summer Painter,” where Callahan’s protagonist is stuck with a job painting names on boats — a big point about human vanity — while “beavers build dams.” Eventually, the weather makes a mess of all that wasted effort, as the flute builds to a tightened breath, the guitar billows violently, and the answer’s an abrupt silence just as the storm peaks. The contrast is pretty spelled out: ride the plane and connect, or sit and watch the storm come in and blow the folly of appearances away. As “Ride My Arrow” has it, even the squirrel in the eagle’s talons has a ride to enjoy. And you’re better than a squirrel, right? This song sees Callahan at his most declarative yet: “Tear out the flesh/ Tear out the bone/ Of anyone who tells you the known is unknown/ Life ain’t confidential.” He then says “no” in about nine different ways. Basically: I’ve found my dream river, my way to be; go and find your own, damn you.
All of this weightiness would sink like the Exxon Valdez if Callahan’s voice couldn’t win the trust you need to preach from a pulpit such as this one, but Dream River is his best turn at the mic yet. He’s always deployed his voice in a fashion befitting the material — “Strawberry Rash” still feels like someone kicking in a window at an ex-girlfriend’s house just by looking at it — but here, he’s imperious, conspiratorial, earnest, loving, and joking (“BARROOM, BROOM”), all at once. Much of the impact comes down to how seamless his band is; like on Apocalypse, there’s a real sense of a small ensemble playing these songs inside and out, which is deadly important considering the weird and drifting structures of country operas like “Summer Painter” and “Ride My Arrow.” With a weird bunch of instruments (a lot of tapping sticks, some flute right out of Da Capo, and guitar with what sounds like a whole heap of flange), it all sounds like watching the same river shimmer, glisten, and flatten as, before and after clouds pass overhead.
Ultimately, Dream River feels like a dialectics of love and effort. To focus on, say, what name is getting daubed on your boat instead of doing something is to miss the ride entirely. All opposites — man and woman, folly and nature, sky and air — come together and catalyze in inevitable but powerful ways, dimly refusing to apprehend how you got to sow real hard with what’s out there to reap richly. If we run forward a few decades and look back, Callahan will never be a Dylan or Cohen (though he may be their equal in many regards), but that’s simply because he’s not trying to sell you a bill of goods in the first place; the flow of irascible, wizened generosity behind these songs makes it feel like he’s a much closer contemporary of someone like French Renaissance writer Michel de Montaigne. With the way his band constantly summons forth the sense of water moving, leaves rustling, and rocks clacking to keep nature in the fold at every moment, these are basically tone essays on approaching life. New Age motivational country music for depressives, as presented by the cowboy of modern life. Dream River might not leap out at you, but it’s because it’s too cohesive, too flat to live a life outside of the porch of your mind, too bound up in a singularity of gaze (akin to the way a farmer might stare at a flock of sheep or a potter at a kiln) to be anything other than what Callahan is preoccupied with at the moment. That’s extremely satisfying if you can draw something from the wisdom being poured out here, but it can also be blissfully irrelevant if you can’t. For a record preoccupied with usefulness, it’s unsurprising that that’s the case. There’s no room for artifice; he’s got to tell it like it is, because the telling is the moving, and the moving is the riding, and the riding is the living.