The 1990s were amply stocked with distant, standoffish musicians, the kind of people you’d admire from afar for fear that they might verbally undress you (or worse, ignore you altogether) just for offering a compliment. Steve Albini set the template in the ‘80s and ex-Pavement leader Stephen Malkmus carried the torch of aloofness awhile. But among these figures, Bill Callahan was distinctly distant. He rarely granted interviews and on the occasion he did it wasn’t uncommon for him to subject the interviewer to the terror of an extended post-question silence. There is no quiet so awful.
Over the years, Callahan’s recording techniques grew more sophisticated, his singing and guitar playing each improved dramatically, his voice dropped an octave, he eventually ditched the alias Smog (under which he released 13 LPs between 1990 and 2005), moved from Chicago to Austin and now, with his new record “Dream River,” the fifth under his own name, he appears to have lightened up. This isn’t to say that he’s dispensed with his signature wry humor or slow, low-sung tempos. Rather, “Dream River” sounds like 47-year-old Callahan’s decided he doesn’t want to be alone for the rest of his life.
Affixing hope to human connection may have been a cruel joke coming from a past Callahan, but now it’s as real and sincere as his supple baritone. “Dream River,” I think, approaches a depth of soul and warmth and humanity and vulnerability in his work that reminds me of Thom Yorke’s on Radiohead’s “In Rainbows,” and that few artists ever broach in their whole careers.
Understatement has always been the chief feature of Callahan’s songwriting, but the narratives on “Dream River” seem even more specific and lucid than its immediate predecessor, 2011’s “Apocalypse.” It could be because he’s put down critiques of phony American-ness (“America!”) and questions of freedom in favor of writing little scenes and symbols of intimacy. These are where Callahan is at his most poignant and powerful, and there are about four instances in “Dream River” where he subtly blows off your socks.
“Small Plane” has my favorite such moment. “Sometimes you sleep while I take us home / That’s when I know / We really have a home,” he sings in his even-keel pitch, arcing just as subtly as Thor Harris’s claves keep time. “I like it when I take the controls from you / And when you take the controls from me.” The level of trust and sincerity in those lines made the small plane itself my new preferred metaphor for mutual dependence. It’s also very telling that “Small Plane” is mostly written in the present tense, suggesting a new leaf for Callahan.
Musically, “Dream River” stretches and yawns — it often eschews a traditional drum kit for congas and the structure of guitar riffs for little textural scratches and the occasional, brief melody. There’s nothing jarring or unexpected, it just rolls on, like its titular river. Callahan’s vocals are way up at the top of the mix, where they belong. As billed, it’s dreamy, and the naturalism — beavers and seagulls as similes, rivers and forests as setting — renders it at once clear and mysterious, like a little parable.
I think “Dream River” is best understood as a lullaby for a lover. It’s soothing and beautiful and requires very little of its listener, and at the end of the day when your heart is full and your body is weary, it’ll make you chuckle but not laugh, reflect but not scrutinize. Something about it tells me that a once grumpy, confused man sleeps soundly these days.