Bill Callahan has an uncanny ability to make you think about life. The images are vivid, the language, simple, and the metaphors open to interpretation. He’s a storyteller who could arguably be mentioned in the same breath as troubadours like Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark, even Johnny Cash; although given his indie-rock pedigree, he’s more likely to remain, at least for the time being, in the fine company of Will Oldham and Richard Buckner.
As with every Callahan release—dating back to his 1988 debut under the Smog moniker—there’s plenty to chew on with his latest, Dream River. And that’s just the lyrics, whose weightiness is given more heft by his controlled baritone. His records seem to be made up of a million vivid scenes that paint a compelling portrait of the human condition.
Where 2011’s Apocalypse was a more dire and lonesome record, Dream River feels optimistic. You probably won’t get that from opener “The Sing,” which puts you in a hotel bar, the narrator explaining, “the only words I’ve said today are ‘beer’ and ‘thank you.’” But as the album progresses you get a sense of an underlying love story, one that’s far from perfect, and one that could be real or a dream. “Small Plane” uses its titular metaphor to describe the trust of a man and a woman (presumably through what could be interpreted as the biggest act of trust). The album continues this way, painting a clear narrative through seemingly hazy recollections.
Musically, Dream River matches the dreamlike state of Callahan’s lyrics. Guitars intertwine softly with equally slinky bass lines. Flutes chirp like spring birds on “Javelin Unlanding” and “Summer Painter,” while percussion pitters and patters throughout. There are more jazz flourishes than straight country strums, which add to the record’s dream sequences. It’s easy to get lost, especially through headphones.
It’s hard to tell which (if any) parts of Dream River are pulled from Callahan’s own life, or if he’s simply gleaning from the human condition. “Life ain’t confidential / No, no, no / It’s not, it isn’t and it ain’t, confidential,” he sings on “Ride My Arrow.” That sentiment essentially illustrates the 47-year-old’s existence over the past 25 years. Callahan has used his art to make sense of the world, and in turn helps us make some sense of it, too.