Bill Callahan: ‘Apocalypse’

Open the packaging of Bill Callahan’s Apocalypse, and the internal sleeve is blank, save for an antique frame housing a profile image of the man himself. It could be a print, but it could also be a mirror: “To me,” he recently told the Guardian’s Ben Thompson, “this record is like a lot of mirrors, and I suppose if you hold up a mirror to yourself and then you turn it around, it reflects outwards … also, if you look in a mirror you might see someone standing behind you who you’d didn’t know was there.”

The creepy sparsness of the record’s artwork is matched by its sonic landscape: from the repetitive strumming of ‘Drover’ to the gentle riffs of ‘One Fine Morning’, Apocalypse steps even further away from the orchestration of Woke on a Whaleheart than did Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle. This tonal modesty comes despite the implicit violence of the album’s title – and, indeed, Callahan’s apocalypse seems to be a personal, incremental one rather than some world-ending cataclysm. As Ben Graham writes in a great review at The Quietus, “he appears to be using the phrase to mean a revelation or epiphany of some kind, both life-changing and extremely personal.” The gentle, brushed quality of the instrumentation, and the slight, almost ephemeral, structure of the nevertheless precision-tuned songcraft, offer a ruminative mood in which Callahan explores without map or direction but with unflagging purpose.

The record is the sound of a man finding if not home then comfort. This leaves a danger that a listener may struggle to find purchase – Callahan’s gnomic utterances at times appear to hold meaning only for him (he’s all you see in the mirror). But that searching mood offers a context in which to orient yourself, and there is a through-line here, from lost to found. Rare is it that we see Callahan depicting things changing for the better, but by the end of Apocalypse, the lightness and sweetness of ‘One Fine Morning’ – indeed, its very title – suggests that’s precisely what he has achieved. In songs such as ‘Eid Ma Clack Shaw’, Callahan has often reveled in obfuscation; yet, as he revealed in an interview with the New York Times, clearing the smog (geddit?) is at the heart of this new record: “The record is kind of, like, blind, or searching, until that point, and then the flare goes off [in ‘Universal Applicant’] and the music stops for a second. And from that point on, it’s like, the music is illuminated.”

That such import is placed on so small a moment helps explain why it’s taken me so long to get to Apocalypse: I’ve wanted to give it proper attention. It rewards that with ambivalence: on ‘America!’, Callahan lists the revered country singers of yore who were also in the US armed forces, and then sings as if startled, ‘I never served my country’; he then proceeds to sing of ‘Afghanistan! / Vietnam! / Iran! / Native Americon! [sic]’, and there’s no easy reconciliation of reverence and revulsion. “I’m standing in a field / A field of questions,” he sings over a skipping, pastoral flute on ‘Free’s’; an apocalypse does not necessarily lead to permanent resolution. It may not be quite as good as the record that proceeded it, but this one is still a keeper.

 

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2 thoughts on “Bill Callahan: ‘Apocalypse’

  1. RE orchestration: Do you not think that WOW, if perhaps a somewhat confused explosion of different sounds, has basically been paired down by Callahan in the last two albums? (In hindsight you can hear it on Supper and River Ain’t Too Much To Love.)

    I honestly think this is better than Sometimes I Wish (although this might be the novelty factor). I think it’s funnier, more playful (apart from Eid Maw obvs), and that it develops the imagery that he’s been using over the past five records or so in a much more direct and confident way.

    • We are in agreement about the trajectory of BC’s career since WOW, T Rowley.

      On the quality of Apocalypse versus Eagle … Even as I wrote this little piece, I felt much the way you seem to: there’s absolutely a confidence and directness (purity?) to the record which is deeply impressive. It coheres in a way that its predecessor didn’t. At the same time, though, the big niggle is that ‘accessibility’ thing – is Apocalypse so very gnomic that it becomes forbidding, so specific to BC that it lacks the weird universality of Eagle? I’m not sure. It does feel, though, that the latter is a bit more expansive.

      I might be over-thinking it, though (gasp!), since whilst listening to Apocalypse I just kept thinking somewhat portentously, ‘this is one for the ages.’ All the ‘accessibility’ and breadth of Eagle may not indeed match the sheer singularity of its successor …

      One to come back to.

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