At one point on I Wish We Were An Eagle, during “Rococo Zephyr,” Bill Callahan sings, “I used to be sort of blind, but now I can sort of see.”
It’s hard not to hear that line as an accurate summation of his career. Callahan’s Smog albums were dour affairs, cutting in their humor, often depressed and bitter. But having shed the Smog moniker, Callahan seems to be looking on the brighter side. On his last solo album, Woke on a Whaleheart, he sounded downright lovestruck. But that album also felt like a reaction to Smog’s darkness. He hadn’t shaken his insistence, just pointed it in a different direction.
But the beautiful I Wish We Were An Eagle is spacious and large, built on dreamy atmosphere. Songs like “Rococo Zephyr” and “The Wind and the Dove” show him reaching out into the world and trying to figure it out. He goes in search, as he says on stunning opener “Jim Cain” of “ordinary things.” A moment when the wind dies, the way a tree bends when that wind kicks back up, the birds clustered in the tree’s branches. In these quiet images, particularly in birds, Callahan mines the compelling intersection of freedom and insularity.
But while he finds comfort in searching through the quiet day, he doesn’t ignore his sadder moments. In “Eid Ma Clack Shaw” he’s alone and broken over someone who’s left. “My Friend” shows off the sinister Callahan, baring his teeth as he sardonically hisses the title phrase. And on “All Thoughts are Prey to Some Beast” he confesses the self-destructive nature of his own mind. In these melancholy moments, Callahan turns to meaninglessness, pointlessly mining dreams for a fleeting comfort. But these days Callahan refuses to wind up in the dark again. The album ends with “Faith/Void,” a nine-minute-plus vision quest that, well, has no real vision. Callahan embraces uncertainty over faith, and leaves us, and himself, wandering in the murky wake of that feeling.
All this blurry musing is represented perfectly in the music. Callahan himself is small on the songs, his guitar repeating spare notes, his voice clear and deep as always. But around him strings swell and spiral, drums thud, and French horns ebb and flow. The sounds grown around, and sometimes overwhelm him, making Callahan sound lost in the songs. And there’s nothing wrong with that, because we get lost along with him. This may not have any of the hard-hitting jabs his best Smog records had, but I Wish We Were An Eagle is a subtler, more bittersweet heartbreak. Now that Callahan can sort of see, he’s proven himself worth following.