Bill Callahan and his long-standing alter ego Smog have been a fixture in the American indie rock scene since the early ‘90s, yet his music falls askew of every major music movement. He has experimented with lo-fi and more recently incorporated staple indie instrumentation like organs, winds and strings. However, little of Callahan’s output belongs to any particular community. The individual parts of his language are familiar, but his command is strangely indefinable.
All of which makes the running narrative behind Callahan’s fourteenth album (third under his given name) Apocalypse and his slow march towards wider acceptance particularly intriguing. The Guardian described the preceding album 2009’s Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle, as “one of his most accessible.” Prefix’s Matthew Flander found Callahan to be “reaching out into the world and trying to figure it out” at times on the same album. However, Ben Ratliff, writing for The New York Times, best captured the artist’s current, complex appeal: “This is what Mr. Callahan does: put a big and mysterious idea in a modest place. He has gotten better and better at it.” Callahan may frequently turn to disconnection in song — even a punchline like “I was worse than a stranger / I was well-known” feels distant — but his ability to frame it has strengthened to the point he can attract a broader audience.
The genius of Apocalypse is its inversion of familiar ideas, such as the Americana aesthetic. The album cover image (Paul Ryan’s painting Apocalypse at Mule Ears Peak, Big Bend National Park in West Texas) sets the scene with a Brokeback-ian landscape. Album-opener “Drover” clears away “the real people” and leaves only the romantically moody narrator’s “dreams… cattle and a resonator.” Acoustic guitars ring, fiddles sputter and Callahan practically tips back his hat to sing about a “wild, wild country.” Each of these components recall familiar, nationalistic notions, akin to baseball, apple pie, blond hair and blue eyes.
Yet in Callahan’s Apocalypse, these well-worn symbols take on shifting meanings and often suggest turmoil over comfort. In the aforementioned “Drover,” the metaphorical cattle run rampant through the narrator’s tumultuous heart. “Universal Applicant” highlights the hulking physicality of plains animals by opening, “Without work’s calving increments / Or love’s coltish punch.” Much like the Coen brothers’ askew views of American culture through their recent films (No Country For Old Men, A Serious Man, True Grit), Callahan employs popular symbols in a distinctly idiosyncratic manner.
Consistent arrangements throughout Apocalypse help thread together these heavy narratives.
The usual suspects (guitar, bass, piano, drums) are augmented by the occasional harmonica, flute and strings, but never used all in unison. The result allows ample room for each instrument to breathe and have greater affect. Thus the repeating lick in “Baby’s Breath” builds a knot in the stomach. Similarly, the simple four-on-the-floor bass kick of “America!” hits as hard as a “Philthy” Taylor double-kick by virtue of gradually building alongside Callahan’s crescendoing intonation. Conversely, the lithe flute and cymbal washes on “Universal Applicant” and “Free’s” undo much of this tension. Such balance masks the heaviness laying just beneath the album’s surface. Each song drifts along effortlessly without calling needless attention to its hidden heart, let alone its long form structure (only 1 of the 7 songs clocks in under 5 minutes).
The peculiarity of Apocalypse is for all its virtues it also feels impenetrable. I won’t pretend to understand the meaning or intention of a lyric like “With the TV on mute / I’m listening back to the tapes / On the hotel bed / My my my apocalypse.” However, such imagery is striking enough to invite curiosity and a vigorous exploration. Credit Callahan then not just for his latest vision, but for how he’s done it.