Bill Callahan abandoned the Smog soubriquet for 2007′s Woke On A Whaleheart. It was assumed that, having hidden most of his true character and intentions under odd shifting arrangements and quasi-cryptic lyrics, this represented a removal of various layers of preconceptional baggage and being more honest with us as consumers of his often bitter worldview. It didn’t quite work though. Woke On A Whaleheart, suffered largely because the production gave it a bar-room feel with layers of strings and instrumentation that barely suited Callahan’s lonesome baritone.
Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle (overlaid at irregular intervals on the promo with airhorns, thanks for that, Drag City, it’s really helpful when a reviewer’s trying to gauge the mood of a record) returns to his rickety sombreness. Circular acoustic riffs dominate, which featured on much of Smog’s best work. As ‘Jim Cain’ puts it, “I used to be darker, then I got lighter, then I got dark again”. What marks the approach out now is a new found gracefulness, as if Callahan has with age and experience learnt to use his voice to warmest effect. At least it does on Callahan’s side of the deal.
Most tracks undercut these vocals with string arrangements that balance precariously between lush and overly syrupy, carefully arranged around his central being, as if Callahan were now pitching himself in the mould of Glen Campbell or Lee Hazlewood. It’s an uneasy shotgun marriage, capable of letting too much light in on Callahan’s usual shade and lifting the sentiments. Lyrically it feels lighter too – it’s as if he believes his wandering days are over, referencing birds in place of the usual references to rivers and considering the land he walks on as he tries to come to terms with what he is and what he’s learnt along the way. There’s always been an element of jet black comedy to Bill’s work, but now he can turn it on himself. There’s hints too of Lambchop’s considerate solitudious soul-folk, in the wandering ‘The Wind And The Dove’ and the deceptively ramshackle ‘My Friend’. This album betrays an emotional core to Callahan, perhaps for the first time on record, or at the very least so openly.
Somehow, though, it doesn’t entirely convince. For all the stateliness of this approach, such openness merely makes Callahan sound more unsure than ever about the courage of his convictions. Last track ‘Faith/Void’ finds its solace in the repetitive mantra “It’s time to put God away” over easy listening strings, as if he’s trying to convince himself. It’s almost the album in microcosm – trying to steer clear of the sedate but ultimately not sure how it ended up here. Maybe on the next album Callahan will find a resolve, a happy medium if you will, and make a record that matches up to the best of Smog’s output.
However, you now have to wonder that by using his real name and casting off the cloak of semi-anonymity under which he could stretch himself and play with the form (like his friend and labelmate Will Oldham), he’s become too comfortable to be dark and mine the depths of his character. The days of him being the semi-AOR crooner by appointment to the hipster set may have already passed.