Bill Callahan: “Apocalypse”
How wonderfully curious, and how profoundly timely: Within a span of a month and a half, two major singer/songwriting talents release album-long meditations on the two-edged sword of nationalism. But then, of course they do; the new albums from Polly Jean Harvey and Bill Callahan arrived as America once again began dropping bombs on a country on the other side of the world, and we’re all sort of wondering exactly what it all means, what America values, what true leadership looks like in a global community. The fact that both albums were recorded before all this mess is largely irrelevant; the timing feels to me much less like serendipity than it does Providence.
Polly Harvey’s album, of course, is not even about America, at least not explicitly. She reveals her mission statement in the album’s very title: Let England Shake. Callahan, meanwhile, simply calls his record Apocalypse, arriving at the same sense of menacing urgency in just two-thirds as many letters. As for subject matter, just look at those majestic peaks and wide open spaces, the frontier brush and tumbleweed; only by using a photo of Monument Valley itself could Callahan have made it clearer that this is a story set in America– specifically the American West.
Anyone who loves a good, slow-building Western will love this thing from the first track; “Drover” is the blueprint for the rest of the album, and a warning that, in music and imagery alike, Callahan is dissecting the very DNA of American myth. This is back to the foundation, back to the very essence of what Americana means– the music mixes country/blues and folk with high-and-lonesome fiddle, and the lyrics are about a frontiersman, a cattle driver living on the edge of civilization itself and in utter isolation. The setting is stark, as are the words themselves; there is nothing to distract from the central images of Callahan’s lyric, and indeed, time seems to slow and each detail, each syllable seems to grow larger and more distinct in the sparse setting. It’s Americana in slow-mo, but also Americana in close-up; for its sharp focus, though, the song remains symbolically weighty but ultimately a thing of mystery. Callahan’s narrator notes, in perfect deadpan and typically resonant baritone, that when his cattle turn on him, he becomes a drover doublefold; the image is suggestive of an artist corralling his muse, a penitent exorcising his demons– or perhaps something even more primal and sinister.
“Drover” sets the tone in more ways than one, and seems to be a key to unlocking the record’s poetic language. That a cattle drive is a pretty perfect (and perfectly ominous) opening scene for a Western goes without saying; that the same imagery recurs in the magnificent closer, “One Fine Morning,” makes it clear how purposeful this writing is. Indeed, Callahan deploys only seven songs here, and he makes each one of them count. Apocalypse is striking on every level. It is rich in mystery and symbolism, awash in history, and heavy with a sort of ominous dread. And yet, the music is as wide open as a an early American vista. It leaves room for careful consideration– something that can be, at times, almost unsettling.
Callahan’s album is less pointed and less angry than Harvey’s, which in a way makes it more distressing; at times there is a quiet resignment to this music that suggests something of a lost cause. But his path to a national mythology is no less sophisticated or profound; in much the same way that Harvey’s album is made to resemble spindly British folk songs– the kind of songs you can imagine being sung around the hearth for generations, save for the devilish black sense of menace underpinning each– Callahan’s album takes on the form of a roots story, a story of origins that goes back to the frontier, to the West, to the very cultivation of America’s own idealistic self-image.
And there are other telling references, as well. “Drover” establishes a tone of something archetypal, something primal; the next song is “Baby’s Breath,” and once again the lyric– dealing in the settling of a piece of land, but also of loss, possibly bloodshed– is cryptic but deeply suggestive. Musically, it’s a more complex composition, with a constantly shifting tempo, but it’s nothing compared to “America,” a sort of stream-of-consciousness ramble that’s hands down the most direct (and most “political”) thing here. The images don’t add up, but then, I imagine that’s part of the point; one minute Callahan is referencing country music legends like Kristofferson and Cash, but addressing them by their military ranks; the next, he’s reading a litany of foreign wars that culminates with the line, “everybody’s allowed a past they don’t care to mention.” Fair enough, Callahan.
Callahan stays true to his country/folk leanings, for the most part, though the compositions aren’t as clean or simple as those on his last album; “America,” for instance, has a wonderfully herky-jerk momentum that perfectly compliments its contradictory thoughts. Wonderfully, strangely, and perversely, however, jazz comes to play a bit in “Free’s”– suitably, the most abstract thing here and also the most generally philosophical in its meditation on what freedom is, and what it means to be free but also to “belong” to “the Free.” It’s a startling twist on a commonly-held American ideal, and as such it makes for a particularly unsettling part of Callahan’s Apocalypse.
For all this, though, I’d almost wonder if Callahan would even call this, first and foremost, an album about the Nation; it’s the angle that strikes you most on first listen, but the curious thing about Apocalypse is how increasingly personal it seems the more it’s played. Again, the “Drover” is instructive; the entire album gives the feel of being alone in the solitude of nature, where contemplation and self-reckoning come a little easier. There is naturalistic imagery throughout, but also a sense of turning inward; the point, it seems, is that Nation and Self are more closely connected than we might care to admit, and that perhaps the album is really a series of questions about identity– questions that lead, more often than not, back to the big-picture sweep of America. It’s something to mull over– another puzzle piece in an album that invites speculation but shuns easy classification. All that to say, I suppose, that this is vintage Bill Callahan– and it’s gripping in ways that might leave you the best kind of unsettled.