Bill Callahan Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle

[Drag City; 2009]

Rating: 4/5

Styles: Stripped-down soul, orchestral folk
Others: (Smog), Leonard Cohen, Johnny Cash

Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle is Bill Callahan’s second LP since his decision to ditch his well-known Smog moniker and record under his given name. This switch had caused much debate, if not anxiety, among the Drag City faithful. His 2005 A River Ain’t Too Much To Love was his most seminal work to date, an existential hand-wrenching that (in hindsight) served as a proper score to send Mr. Smog off to greener pastures. Appreciative fans of Bill Callahan fretted over the new incarnation of the artist and hoped that the name-change would bring him much inspiration, albeit not too much to abandon his tried-and-true sublime glum.

But when the confusing Woke On A Whaleheart dropped in 2007, we nervously twirled our headphone chords and struggled to understand why Callahan would choose to reintroduce himself to the world with a hodgepodge that aimed not for our heartstrings, but for our cheeky embrace. At best, the tracks on Whaleheart could be explained as interesting experiments that he had always wanted to release, but didn't for fear of diluting the somber Smog brand. At worst, we feared that Joanna Newsom, his squeeze at the time, may have influenced his aesthetic, and we were doomed to listen to him drift into his middle-aged years recording sparingly from a vinyl-sided suburban loveshack.

So, we gave Callahan the benefit of the doubt. As a veteran in a competitive independent world that eschews longevity, Bill is smart enough, self-aware enough, and resilient enough to stay relevant. Although we applaud his desire to experiment with new styles and meander lyrically, Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle proves that Callahan’s ultimate strength is his ability to create cohesive albums by honing in on specific themes to expose/explore subtle emotions. If some of his previous motifs included despair and growth, I would venture that the recurring theme of Eagle is irresolution. Although such a creative premise may not resonate as strongly as the stark, cautious optimism of A River Ain’t Too Much To Love, there exists very little in our fatigued world that is resolute; Callahan’s poetic musings, then, have the ability to comfort. When Callahan sings, “Well I cannot tell you/ Which way it would be/ If it was this way too” on "The Wind And The Dove," we realize how his calm baritone can console by assuring us that he’s in the same uneasy boat.

Album opener "Jim Cain" is an achingly beautiful return to form for Callahan, who deftly combines his typical simple guitar picks with string and horn arrangements by Austin-native Brian Beattie. His first sentiment, “I started out in search of ordinary things/ How much of a tree bends in the wind/ I started telling the story without knowing the end,” sets the tone for much of the album. However, we should avoid the mistake of associating his lyrics with his actual mental state. I imagine that Callahan, as an artist, did not intend for "Jim Cain," or any other song on the album, to be entirely reflective of his post-Newsom life; it should instead be seen as a compelling study of a Callahan-observed character – either real or imagined. In the case of this opening track, we can assume that much inspiration can be derived from the title’s namesake, James M. Cain, the hard-drinking noir writer who, like Callahan, is also from Maryland.

Inherent to his stark musical minimalism, Callahan has historically been a wordsmith first and a guitarist second. Nevertheless, the entire first half of Eagle shows Callahan as a much more evolved and mature musician. He appears more comfortable expanding his musical space, and he exercises tasteful restraint with Beattie’s strings. And through years of experience, he now seems to have an intuitive sense of when to insert drums or well-placed background guitar noodles. The refined musical palette is made all the clearer by the crystalline production, miles away from his ragged, lo-fi Julius Caesar or Wild Love days. As a result, the listener is treated to a number of transcendent moments, especially during the first several songs. Interestingly, Callahan decides to close Eagle with the nearly 10-minute long “Faith/Void,” which consists of the gently crooned line, “It’s time to put God away,” repeated about 50 times – an intriguing closing sentiment for a man desperately seeking his peace.

Perhaps if Smog was a depressed young man who grew detached from believing in the world, Bill Callahan is the astute storyteller who longs for something better, whatever that may be.

1. Jim Cain
2. Eid Ma Clack Shaw
3. The Wind and The Dove
4. Rocco Zephyr
5. Too Many Birds
6. My Friend
7. All Thoughts Prey To Some Beast
8. Invocation of Ratiocination
9. Faith/Void

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