He Can Sing It, if Not Speak It
By BEN RATLIFF
Published: April 8, 2011
BILL CALLAHAN’S “Apocalypse” is a record that knows itself. Mr. Callahan, 44, one of our best lyricists and now — finally — a singer approaching excellence, uses his voice carefully, in a no-vibrato baritone, going down to Merle Haggard’s range. His recent songs have the pace of a more confiding time in music, when singer-songwriters in Nashville and Los Angeles were first working out what male sensitivity sounds like. “Apocalypse” can resemble an early-1970s record by Gordon Lightfoot or Mickey Newbury, but more heavy-hearted, slowed down by a quarter, with far fewer chords, and with words that embody rather than explain.
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Its lyrics form a bestiary: cattle, hog, bee and buffalo are all here, as well as the phrase “work’s calving increments and love’s coltish punch.” It works the phrase “my apocalypse” into the fourth and seventh songs, which are the first and last tracks of the album’s second side in its vinyl version. Its last lyric, sung twice and meaningfully, is “DC 450”: the catalog number of the album, released last week on the label Drag City.
The record’s fulcrum, lyrically and conceptually, comes around the middle, halfway through the fourth track. In the song, “Universal Applicant,” over a slithering, one-chord piece of music, the narrator fires a flare gun, an action that Mr. Callahan first describes and then imitates, in two small and precise aspirant sounds. I noticed it — went back to hear it a few times more in fact — but didn’t know how important it was to the whole work.
“That part of the song is the turning point of the record,” he told me recently. In e-mail, he is sharp and funny and occasionally strident, but in person he’s nearly the opposite: hesitating to name or quantify very much, rounding off incomplete thoughts with quick, conciliatory grins. At my request we went to a place where we could talk freely in almost complete quiet, a Midtown office-building cafeteria at night. Still, he radiated reluctance, and my recorder had trouble registering his voice.
“The record,” he continued, “is kind of, like, blind, or searching, until that point, and then the flare goes off and the music stops for a second. And from that point on, it’s like, the music is illuminated.” It makes sense once you hear him put it this way: The themes on the second half of the record are about acceptance, freedom and “riding for the feeling.” But he doesn’t expect anyone else to pick up on it. “There is a story line there that is speaking to some part of your body,” he said uneasily. “It’s pretty abstract.”
This is what Mr. Callahan does: put a big and mysterious idea in a modest place. He has gotten better and better at it. “The thing that’s uniquely his,” said the singer-songwriter John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats in a recent e-mail, “is to sort of smuggle in scenes of remarkable emotional and, I gotta say, spiritual weight within these fairly light constructions.”
The first time I saw Mr. Callahan perform, in the mid-90s, he was working under the name Smog, and he had recently come to terms with his deep voice. He sang indirect character sketches about bad or isolated people in a series of blank monotones, accompanying himself crudely with acoustic guitar; he stood tall and thin and upright under neat, boyish brown hair, a catatonic expression and yellow sunglasses.
He seemed very, very strange. An audience was there to see him. He was already, in underground terms, a hero and a major object of interest for the kind of woman who loves Leonard Cohen records. But he made no visible effort to connect with it. Of course he was connecting like crazy.
He was past 30 then, and into his middle period. By that point, as Smog, he’d already made 10 albums in nine years — if you include 4 squalid-sounding homemade cassettes available by mail order through his mid-80s fanzine, Disaster, in which his writing style was as talky and alive as his later performance style was Dr. Bleak.
The early period began at home in Silver Spring, Md. (Mr. Callahan’s father spent his career with the National Security Agency as a language analyst; his mother worked there too. “Doing what?” I asked. “Same sort of thing,” he said. Eight seconds elapsed. “You know, like code....” he trailed off. “Breaking.”) He wrote songs as a teenager, quit for a while, and restarted at 22, with an eight-track recorder and a guitar he didn’t know how to play very well.
His early songs were squawked in a high voice; he wrote from the id about alienation and contempt. “I feel like an astronaut/suffocating on the moon,” went a lyric to a pained song, “Astronaut,” one of dozens. (He would gradually move toward songs about sex and sadness and vengeance — he is an admirer of the novelists James M. Cain and Richard Yates — and finally to his present state of grace, in which love is not always tortured and the metaphors run prehistoric: water, horses, birds.)