Customer Review

11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Worth the Challenge it Presents. Maybe Bill's Most Accomplished Collection Yet., April 11, 2011
This review is from: Apocalypse (Audio CD)
For the last decade, like clockwork, singer/songwriter Bill "Smog" Callahan has released a new studio record every two years. Over the decade prior to that he released, on average, about one studio record per year. Now quite deep into his run, the still-young 44 year old musician has issued one of his most complete works yet, the seven-song, 40-minute Apocalypse, his first batch of new songs since 2009's excellent Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle. It's mature, fully realized and unique records like this that make artists like Callahan shine above others as a true man of his time.

As you'd expect by now, the dark humor, startling wit and jaw-dropping poetic grace is all once again present, adding to the argument that Callahan (along with, in this writer's opinion, Will Oldham and the late Elliott Smith) is one of the three or four best songwriters of his time. And when I say songwriters, I'm mostly talking about lyrics here, as many of Callahan's songs, when simply put on paper and studied, read through as well as anyone ever - Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Townes Van Zandt, John Lennon, etc. Like Oldham, Callahan is fairly weird dude hidden inside the guise of a dusty Southern throwback. His fatherly voice holding his eccentric songs together like duct tape, falling out of your speakers like the voice of some humble, riddle-teasing God. The voice of a seemingly introverted man, living deep in his own head, spilling bits and pieces of American life that take weeks - sometimes years - to decode. Sojourner cuts, I call 'em.

As always, the voice is deep and sprinkled with a kind of nuanced emotion that can at times really pack a punch. The arrangements here remind more of Smog's Supper than Callahan's other two studio records under his birth name, the rhythmic Woke On a Whaleheart and the downtempo Americana-ish Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle. The vibes change from one track to the next, never quite doing what you think they should upon first review, taking strange turns and utilizing some surprising sounds, such as a flute. As always (save for maybe on the straightly played Woke, a record I dearly love), Callahan's writing structure follows its own rules, changing tempos suddenly, twisting, then breathing down your neck as if Callahan is ready to stare you in your eyes. It all works quite well, though I could see new listeners finding their way to confusion at first.

Opener "Drover" starts things off strong, standing as one of the more accessible selections, driven by an odd mix of composed feedback and fiddle, nearly falling mute at the three-minute mark before building back up to an epic ending. And, I suppose, the word "epic" is fitting for this record, as all but one of the seven songs here pushes the six minute mark, closer "One Fine Morning" clocking in at almost nine minutes. Lead single (if that's what you want to call it) "Baby's Breath" is one of Callahan's cleverest compositions in years - maybe ever. To a casual listener the cut would feel simple, almost minimalist; listen closely and the details rise to the top - loads of them, all as unlikely as the last. All doing their part to support Callahan's abstract writing through a very efficient brand of construction.

Aside from the somewhat jazzy "Free," the only short song on Apocalypse, each song here feels like something of a stand alone work, as if Callahan approached these recordings one at a time, putting weeks - maybe months - of thought and tinkering into each one until he had a wholly unique composition. And, seeing as how this record was produced by Callahan himself, that very well might be the case. The result, to be frank, is strange. Strange and intensely focused. I'd even go as far as to guess that some folks - even longtime fans - might find Apocalypse to be a frustrating listen at first. Just hang in there; listen to the album a song at a time - get to know all the details and turns, ponder the words. Do that, and eventually, I promise, this one-of-a-kind record will fall together for you. Apocalypse may not be as accessible or repeat-worthy as Callahan's last few records, but it just might be his most accomplished work to date.

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Showing 1-5 of 5 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Apr 13, 2011 10:24:24 AM PDT
Hippie Smell says:
So you think it's amongst his best? I checked out a track at a listening station in New York, it was called America and it really made me cringe. I own every album and early tape release by Bill so I have good perspective on his works, and my initial reaction was this one was no where near his best. My question is the entire album like that song? Also, based on that song alone I could never give that album 5 stars in good faith.

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 13, 2011 11:00:42 PM PDT
It's a pretty eclectic record. That's my least favorite track. Check this song out ...

I say buy the record, especially if you have all his other stuff. It's not his most accessible, but the songs are most definitely some of his most interesting.

In reply to an earlier post on May 8, 2011 5:39:17 PM PDT
Hippie Smell says:
Thanks Gregory, I heard that track are correct that is much better. I listened to Riding For the Feeling as well, didn't do much for me. I think he's lost something that speaks to me. Maybe he has become too pastoral? I do agree with you though, people should buy it he's a great artist and I will support him. But I do disagree that this one is anywhere near his best works. Anyone into Bill/smog I highly recommend Red Apple Falls, Knock Knock, Wild Love, his last album (forgot the name of it but it's stunning), and Doctor Came at Dawn (warning Doctor is SUPER depressing). But hey, it's just music and we are entitled to our opinions. Enjoy the listens.

In reply to an earlier post on May 13, 2011 2:42:14 PM PDT
Thanks for the reply. Some weeks have passed now and I've cooled on the record. It's good, but not one of his best. I'd rank his stuff as follows: 1. Knock Knock; 2. Woke On a Whaleheart; 3. Red Apple Falls; 4. Dongs of Sevotion; 5. Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle.

Posted on Oct 6, 2013 10:18:15 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Oct 7, 2013 6:48:52 PM PDT
Steve Kohn says:
Locke, I come to Bill Callahan with a blank slate. I'd never heard of him until reading something complementary, and was lucky to find this CD in our great San Antonio library system.

I always try to know as little as possible about a CD (or book or film) before hearing it so my opinion can't be influenced by others.

My opinion on this CD: interesting music handicapped by obscure, apparently careless lyrics.

" of the three or four best songwriters of his time?" You really think so?

Of course it's subjective, but here, I submit, are some indisputably better:
Paul Simon
Leonard Cohen
Mark Knopfler
Bob Dylan
David Olney
David Byrne
John Fogerty
Kate and Anna McGarrigle
John Lennon, RIP
JJ Cale, RIP
Emmylou Harris
Joni Mitchell
Jackson Browne
Loudon Wainwright III
Robert Cray
Bruce Springsteen
...and others, but this is off the top of my head and a glance or two at my CD rack.

I'll be looking for Callahan's other albums, but I won't be hearing this one twice.
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