Bill Callahan. Side 1. Track 1.
Setting out. Proclamations of setting out. When it happens you know it.
Bill Callahan is a master of the opening track on what we old folks used to call an album. Now you see kids, that’s a collection of songs all written and recorded around a similar time and place and mindset and ethos and vibe and aww forget it man. What I’ve really been wondering is if Callahan writes these opening tracks last. I see him as the kind of cool calculator who deftly places crumbs throughout his work so I imagine he writes these opening pieces with the full size and feel of the album already existing and known to him. They’re just too perfect.
This really begins in earnest with his last 2 albums under the Smog moniker, both of which are blatant harbingers of the Callahan records to come. It’s where “the voice” changed too. You can barely hear the higher register of Dongs of Sevotion and Red Apple Falls clinging to his baritone like lichen desperately holding on to a vessel headed for deeper, uncharted waters. And by the time Supper was served, it only took Mr. Callahan one more record to realize he needed to ditch the Smog moniker altogether and invite us all along for Mr. Callahan’s Invisible Republic train ride. It was a New Deal, if you’ll allow the low hanging fruit of an analogy.
“Feather by Feather”
This is a heavyweight song. Dylan-level craft and execution and released into a completely uncaring world. “Losing your wings, feather by feather” he even sings, a bleak glimpse into the ensuing Cohen-esque era. Callie is also clearly saying here to the indie rock nerds, “Get your head out of your ass, dick wipes. This is the real shit now. We ain’t tossing off 7” B-side ditties any more!” Or something like that.
“Winter exposes the nest, and I’m gone.” See, there’s the final goodbye to the indie rock scenester club. Not that he was ever in it. Not that it even existed.
“From the Rivers to the Ocean”
This one soars like he was actually released from a band named Smog and allowed to make his own album finally. Which is funny because Smog was just him you see? I always thought he said “Have faith in worthless knowledge.” but apparently it’s wordless. Whatever, both are cool and relevant. Doesn’t the doe-eyed Joanna Newsome show up somewhere around this point? Worth noting probably. I don’t subscribe to any sort of New Criticism when it comes to rock n roll or folk rock or pop or whatever the fuck this stuff is called so yeah, it’s relevant.
“Cain” slowly unfolds with more checklist enumerations from the world-weary poet. What he thought would happen. What didn’t. What never will. It’s fucking great. One of the few guys around these days pulling this kind of Cohen/Dylan/Townes level of lyric exploration and reach. Downright epic considering it’s all been made in the last 20 years. Sounds older to me. But once again, there’s a ton of What if and Have to Wait and See platitudes in this opener as well.
“Drover” from Apocalypse may be the exception. It’s not focused enough on the task at hand. The once in a generation reply to “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes”, “America!” is a more likely opener in my humble opinion.
I don’t know Dream River very well yet. Will begin processing it more thoroughly now. And upon doing so it’s hard to imagine this opening track is the hardest dick in the pack. But wait, I do remember this “Beer and Thank You” refrain. It’s really pretty good I have to say. A few time changes too. Well, it’s the only song on the record I probably know so we’ll just have to wait and see.
They’re all expansive and open with forlorn, yet thoroughly resigned feelings about the immediate past. They offer promise and potential but are very aware that they were just here a year or so back, promising the same thing.
It’s true that all great opening tracks herald the oncoming information like a well-designed poster or a slick-tongued barker pulling in passerby to the carnival, but Callahan’s are so spot-on, so eerily encapsulating of the savage and quiet beauty to come that I’d rather listen to the songs than even think about this anymore.
Editor’s Note. This piece originally appeared on Medium: https://medium.com/@hjbacchus/bill-callahan-side-1-track-1-8837e3132846