This review was originally published at Listen Before You Buy.
Bill Callahan sounds more like the omniscient and all-knowing narrator of The Big Lebowski than the standard singer songwriter on his latest album “Apocalypse”. Callahan is proof that even amidst the corruption, or lack of talent, in the sometimes machinated and soulless music industry, that those who practice music solely as craft still exist. Surreptitiously dubbed Apocalypse, the steadiness of the album narrated by the warm-voiced Callahan strikes slowly, but with the strength of an end-times prophecy.
The mountainous ballad ‘Driver’ opens the album, a song dedicated to the country that Callahan sings about often on this record, that of America. This song invokes scenery from “No Country For Old Men” or other brutality-based western films in the same vein. There is something very theatrical in Callahan’s writing and delivery, which is perhaps what is conjuring all these cinematic references. This track is rife with flutes, tribal drums, and Irish influences, marking it as the perfect introduction to a folk-infused walk through what seems to be an ancient and thoughtful mind. He sings “One thing about this wild, wild country / it takes a strong strong it breaks a strong strong mind”, and you can’t help but get the feeling that he is speaking from personal experience here.
Following up the marching feel of the album opener, ‘One Fine Morning’ is much slower and less insistent. If ‘Driver’ possesses the brutality of the old western wild country, this track has the air of the final, sad scene of those old film, somehow maintaining sonically the solemnity that these films capture cinematically. Callahan speak-talks some of the lyrics and sings the rest, but whatever mode he adopts is equally compelling, equally unique.
The sounds of the album are wonderfully varied; flutes, strings, excellent guitar work, splashes of cymbal, and at one point (‘Universal Applicant’) Callahan himself even vocally mimics the sound of a flare gun. The highlight has to be the punchy middle track ‘America!’ that Callahan somehow manages to pronounces the ! in. “You are so grand and golden” he belts, but such folksy lyrics are backed by a wall of electronic sound that is decidedly rock.
Right on the heels of a song about the grandiosity of America, Callahan places a tune about the tiniest of flowers named after the tiniest of beings with ‘Baby’s Breath’. Of course, this flower is carried by Callahan through sacrificial processes, weddings, clearings, and more.
Callahan sutures self-references and lyrical allusions into his songs with a weft that few songwriters can pull off anymore, let alone conceive of in the first place. ‘Universal Applicant’ is chock full of Biblical allusions that are delivered so nonchalantly only listeners who have studied the ancient text would pick them up. If nothing else, the allusions Callahan includes, both literary and cultural, prove that he is a studious observer of mankind’s history & humanities. Unbeknownst to him it seems, he has joined the ranks of these great artists and will soon undoubtedly be studied in turn.