Bill Callahan used to be known as Smog, but he has just released a second album under his own name. One might think of Conor Oberst no longer recording as Brighteyes to little appreciable difference, but Callahan records, whilst sharing the approach of Smog, also add new layers. Of course, Callahan has always been a more interesting prospect than Oberst, whose adolescent meanderings have seen him labelled a new Dylan by adolescent meanderers everywhere. Callahan, on the other hand, is eccentric and left-field, pitching his lyrics far enough away from ‘wilfully profound’ that they approach a more Dylanesque quality all by themselves.
Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle features song titles like ‘Eid ma clack Shaw’, ‘Rococo Zephyr’ and ‘all thoughts are pray to some beast’, and he does his best impression of Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner throughout, but in most ways this is his most accessible album to date. His last album, Woke on a Whaleheart, was full of rewarding diversions but at times lacked direction: its songs covered a lot of ground musically without quite coming together as an album. This latest record, on the other hand, hangs together perfectly, whilst maintaining each song’s individual identity. If none of them have quite the immediacy of ‘Diamond Dancer’, this is more than made up for by the record’s overall unity.
Callahan achieves this both sonically, thematically and by means of form: many of the songs repeat a central phrase over and again, and the album as a consequence develops a meditative quality. This character allows no place for alt.country pastiches like ‘A Man Needs a Woman or a Man to Be a Man’ from Woke on a Whaleheart: each song is seriously itself, inhabiting the broader context whilst offering a new route into its heart. On ‘Faith/Void’, it is chanted that ‘it’s time to put God away’, and at times the album feels like an alternative hymn book, pleading for some form of authority: ‘show me a way, show me the way, show me the way, to shake a memory’ Callahan sings on the mysterious ‘Eid ma clack Shaw’. ‘I looked all around, it was not written down,’ he opines on ‘My Friend’.
Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle is probably a break-up album, but Bill Callahan has taken it somewhere more mystical. It is a making sense, but also a taking leave: this is what gives this at times dark album such a sense of forgiveness and, ultimately, a kind of lightness. On this basis alone, it’s an early contender for album of the year.