As Smog — and, more mysteriously, (smog) — Bill Callahan has built an extensive back catalogue that’s seen him evolve from patience-testing sonic tinkerer to fractured folkie. If a thread runs through his work, it’s his laconic and morosely witty mini-dramas. In recent years, these moody character sketches have received increasingly panoramic treatment through lush production values and an ever expanding instrumental palette. On Woke on a Whaleheart — the first full-length he’s released under his own name — there are fewer of his signature narratives and less dazzling music to charge his lyrics with the same gripping sense of enigma. It’s far from his best work, but, as Callahan takes a detour into rootsy musical traditions such as country and gospel, it is a characteristically eccentric release.
Beginning with opener “From the Rivers to the Oceans,” spacious, live production values perfectly showcase the warm organic instruments that dominate the album: acoustic guitar, piano and strings. Unfortunately, that track wanders aimlessly for nearly seven minutes. Whaleheart begins to hit its stride with the third track, “Diamond Dancer” (although the song, released in March as the first single, probably wouldn’t stand up without such a hypnotic arrangement). As a primal, Tina Weymouth-style bass line lurches front and center, tangles of acoustic notes, shrieking violins and moaning gospel singers crowd in the background. “Sycamore” is even better, as reverb-soaked electric and tinny acoustic guitars braid elliptical arpeggios. Throughout, Callahan spits opaque adages until, late in the song, his vocals are mirrored by a gospel singer. His staccato delivery — singing, “Sycamore got to grow down before it grows up” — approximates soul, but Callahan’s froggy baritone against her deep, unblemished voice borders on ridiculous. Even so, it’s a great song.
Like Howe Gelb’s ‘Sno Angel Like You from last year, Whaleheart uses the conventions of traditional American genres to disguise slightly skewed songwriting. Strangely, the incorporation of these motifs doesn’t render his work any more conventional. Instead, it’s as if Callahan wandered into the wrong studio but taught the players his songs anyway. That sense of uneasy displacement, though, is exactly what makes Woke on a Whaleheart a fitting addition to Callahan’s body of work.