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Bill Callahan follows the broadcast signals. A couple years ago he watched David Letterman in Australia, and now he’s listening to a Donald Sutherland interview on the truck radio. The danger of reading autobiography in these autobiographical details is that, if a man tells you he assembles the narrative of his life from random daily transmissions, then, barring some God-like ability to track his every movement, you’re constantly chasing down a ghost. Artists should be so empty. I don’t assume much about Callahan, just one thing really, that time is on his side. He sounds, more than anyone else I can name, like he inhabits the present with ease. Consider the way he delivers one of Dream River’s already most celebrated lines: “I’ve got limitations like Marvin Gaye / Mortal joy—.” Then a pause, suggesting he’s building up to an eloquent insight. But no, he decides the thought is pretty much complete, and the next three words fall into the song with the surprise of simplicity: “—is that way.” Eloquence comes closest to silence.
Will he forever keep getting better and better at this sort of thing, more effortless and expansive every two years? Dream River has a few guitar squalls, but also more than enough qualities to suggest it as a complementary letting up after 2011’s somewhat more fraught Apocalypse. There’s its less dried out cover painting and its idylls-beyond-Andy Williams title, its frequency of easy and excellent beauty, its idealized moments of loneliness (“beer, thank you”). But even during the more urgent or unhappy moments on his recent albums, or on “Spring,” when the subject is a season that looks so bad it’s “death warmed over,” Callahan has a way of maintaining that easiness, shuffling off the leaden weight of argument and point of view, doing everything for the sake of the music. He never met an existential dilemma he couldn’t bypass weirdly. Mystery is a limitation in the Callahan universe, illumination a deeper quality, even when the answers it provides aren’t very straightforward. “Life ain’t confidential,” he concludes on “Ride My Arrow,” after some harsh words for “anyone who tells you the known is unknown.”
In the realm of the known, it’s funny how much closer he’s coming with every album to sounding like a forgotten legend of country music—not someone who put in a decade or two as an actual country star, necessarily, but someone who’s retired to less formal surroundings, with soul and wit intact. His own past, easy to forget in this new context, is quite far from country, but looking back twenty years to Smog’s Julius Caesar, one of the best and most creative of early 90s lo-fi home recording endeavors, there are a couple things it has in common with his newer work, one being the satisfaction of being alone. And then there are still a few moments when the music, rather than billowing and unfurling as it mostly does, contains memories of an earlier kind of willed momentum that’s more youthful, untrained and impulsive. But not desperate, not still making a name. Claves make a recurring appearance on Dream River, courtesy drummer Thor Harris, following the thread of some stray rhythm, but sometimes that ceaseless ticking acts as a living history, the lure of time. Callahan has suggested the album was recorded under less insomniac and obsessive conditions than usual, but the clicking percussion conjures up a picture, a stripped, hollow space, within vivid arrangements, where a man continues to wear away his fingers tapping out compositions. And as a division of that portrait across time, Callahan’s decision to drop the name Smog in 2007 still resonates. It’s paying off enormously right about now, with a contained, substantial body of work now accumulated under his own name, small enough to be held in the mind all at once, too big already to define as anything but an essential set of random transmissions.
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