I should really stop doing this… I’ve found yet another album good enough to compel me to write about it, but one by a musician whose previous work is completely unknown to me. You know, it’s good to be familiar with an artist’s work when you find something new by them: it gives you a benchmark to compare the material against, gives you a feel for their style and character and so on. If the music interests me I do usually make a point of checking out the musician’s back catalogue, but this time I just really couldn’t be bothered doing so. For starter’s I’d have two more proper solo albums by Callahan to trawl through, not to mention eleven under the alias Smog, and frankly I don’t have the time, money or interest. That’s a lot of music. I haven’t even got around to getting Bob Dylan’s entire back catalogue despite him being my favourite musician, so if Mr. Callahan thinks he’s getting any special treatment in this case he can think again. Secondly, I think this way I’ll get a different perspective on the album, seeing it for what it is rather than what I expect it to be. And it’s a fine, fine album, one of the best from last year, a stark journey through eccentric and raw Americana.
Apocalypse opens with Callahan’s voice in solo before the instruments come in, which is probably useful if you (like me) haven’t heard his voice before. It does take that extra few seconds he provides us with to let it sink in. Deadpan and deep, he sounds like a slightly more enthused and tone sensitive Steven Wright. And musically it’s not too dissimilar: Drover begins the album with the dull thudding of drums, the jagged strums of acoustic minor chords, the fragmented shards of electric guitar painting the picture of a tough and unforgiving environment. And sure enough we’ve got lyrics to match: a fractured narrative of cattle driving in difficult circumstances, where sometimes the resilience of the hardest of men is simply not enough to overcome the challenges they face. “One thing about this wild, wild country… it takes the strong, strong, it breaks the strong, strong mind.” Baby’s Breath moves into bleaker territory yet, opening with ecclesiastical, metaphorical lyrics that eventually give way the revelation that the narrator’s love has gone, driven away perhaps? The musical backdrop of murky acoustic balanced with splinters of edgy electric guitar only adds to the tension of the lyrics.
America! changes the pace a little: delivering an bitterly sardonic tale of purported American revelries, failures and twisted values, all over a stomping, hypnotic blues vamp. “America! America! I watch David Letterman!” “Afghanistan, Vietnam, Iran, Native American. America! Well everyone’s allowed a past they don’t care to mention!” It’s hilarious and disturbing, a bleak social commentary on all things typically “American,” which really makes us wonder what it is to be truly American and should these be things to be proud of? Callahan offers no answers, instead leaving you to work out if he’s offering mere jokes or harsh realities. The seven-song album still has some major songs following this, including two personal and painstakingly beautiful ballads that are ultimately the two major songs here: Riding For The Feeling and One Fine Morning. The former is a confessional ballad of leaving somewhere and the regrets that come with it, with some utterly beautiful electric piano set over a mournful backbeat, evoking defeat, resilience, lost hopes, new dreams, an end to the present and a hello to a terrifying and uncertain future. One Fine Morning combines a mixture of pastoral and apocalyptic lyrics, evocative of Bonnie Dobson’s classic (Walk Me Out In The) Morning Dew. Altogether more hushed and sparse than the preceding songs, One Fine Morning exists in a state of perpetual unease, anticipation and uncertainty. “Yeah, one fine morning, I'm gonna ride out. Just me and the skeleton crew, we're gonna ride out in a country kind of silence.” Yet it contains probably the most utterly gorgeous vocals Callahan has laid down on this record, not to mention an exceptionally beautiful piano part throughout, penetrating the austerity of the music with a ray of sunshine. We can’t escape his irony and humour by now though, choosing to end the album with a soulful chanting of “DC 450,” the catalog number of the album. Apocalypse is deeply moving and personal, 40 minutes rich in dark humour and folk-inspired ballads, twisting the American dream and offering a surreal and possibly condemnatory reality. I can’t say for sure if it makes a good introduction to Callahan’s work, but as stand-alone piece of music it’s hard to fault it.
Words - Adam