Search The Line of Best Fit
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Reality is a gratifying return to Bill Callahan's off-kilter style


Release date: 14 October 2022
Bill Callahan - Reality cover
14 October 2022, 00:00 Written by Liam Inscoe-Jones

Over the years, much has made of Bill Callahan’s miserly tendencies. He did choose to be known as “Smog”, after all.

On the fourteen albums he released under that name, his wit was indeed often cutting and acerbic; a knottiness matched only by his DIY sound. But Callahan is now an artist with a long career behind him. Spare your gasps, older readers, but my first introduction to Bill Callahan was as “Bill Callahan”, on 2013’s sparse, rural Dream River. In the same way some love Nick Cave the punk blasphemer and others the wise rhapsodist, so too are there now fans of Callahan in his different eras, and for the last fifteen years his music has transformed into something far from misanthropic, something soothing, patience-testing and life affirming.

With a patient, acoustic palette, Callahan’s music has focussed on treating life’s smaller moments with a barrister’s intensity. In recent years he has sung of wedding chauffeurs, alpine storms, plane journeys and recited his own album’s catalogue number as a climatic refrain. But despite the inferred soberness of the singer-songwriter label, Callahan stands above a crowded field with his song’s beauteous instrumentation and the persistent presence of odd, unexpected quirks; excursions into psychedelia, violence and Marvin Gaye.

YTI⅃AƎЯ, his 23rd (!) album, is a return to the style of the early output under his own name, before he took and extended break in 2013 and returned with Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest and Gold Record – two scrapbook albums full of smaller vignette songs of simpler instrumentation and a greater emphasis on Callahan’s words and voice. YTI⅃AƎЯ sees the dense layering and lengthier songs come back, a gratifying return to the style which suits his rich, aged voice best.

From a different perspective, this may well be his least accessible album in some time. Callahan has stated that the album is an effort to rouse people in defiance of our enervating times, and each song revolves around different allegories which reflect the current climate. The result is far knottier than his recent, storytelling mode. What does he mean, for example, by the metaphor of shipwrecked men warming their hands inside the gut of an Assateague horse on "Everyway"? Or how about when he sings “They say never wake a dreamer / Maybe that's how we die” on "Coyotes"?

Despite occasional lyrical obtuseness, it’s a joy to hear Callahan back over thick, syrupy instrumentation, and there’s an abundance of riches here. The strongest influence seems to be presence of drummer Jim White of Dirty Three fame, who Callahan has occasionally called upon since the start of the 2000s, but is heard loudest on YTI⅃AƎЯ. White’s idiosyncratic style focusses on much on pitch as it does rhythm, patting out complex, asymmetric grooves which throw songs slightly off-kilter. Indeed, unlike the pleasingly warm instrumentals of records like Apocalypse, YTI⅃AƎЯ’s songs build upwards rather than outwards, raising cacophonies which Callahan locks into with lyrics which don’t so much break into a chorus, but rather intensify in repetition.

"Planets" positively derails in its latter half as electric and acoustic guitar bristle against one another, while "Naked Souls" escalates into a maelstrom of horns, piano and White’s krautrockian drums. The record, intended to be heard in one sitting, is finely balanced with moments of restrained beauty too; opener "First Bird" unfurls gently, while album standout "Lily" opens up after a slow entrance with bright and open nylon guitar. Combining this sonic abundance with a certain emotional aloofness, YTI⅃AƎЯ may well prove to be the first of his albums to provide both Smog fans and Callahan fans with everything expected from each.

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