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Album Review

by Bill Callahan

Drag City

Review Date
9th June 2011
Reviewed by
Brannavan Gnanalingam

For a man with such a considerable and impressive oeuvre, it’s still a testament to him that each new album feels exciting. Apocalypse Bill Callahan certainly feels like a darker follow-up to 2009’s Sometimes I Wish I Were an Eagle, and it’s not surprising that some critics have likened it back to his previous Smog work. But it’s the lyrics, that famous baritone delivery, the odd instrumental flourishes that colour each song, which all work together wonderfully to create an emotionally engaging and complex album.

‘Drover’ is a sinister and energetic opener – simple guitar work, understated percussion, and a gurgling violin all jolting a listener expecting something a little more welcoming. It’s full of space – both musically and thematically, in which Callahan tells of a “drover” who loses himself mentally with the carnal land. ‘Baby’s Breath’ almost turns the taming of the frontier myth (heightened by typical civilising images of gardens, flowers) into one of loss. ‘America’ is abrasive, and manages to turn Callahan’s vaguely annoying vocal performance into something much more sinister than it should have been. The lyrics veer between an acknowledgement of America’s heroes and an indictment of America’s dark past (“Afghanistan, Vietnam, Iran, Native American”) finally resolving in an acceptance of the past. The flute and jangly guitars of ‘Universal Applicant’ hides yet another man alone – as if madness is around the corner. It’s a little meandering though to nail its themes.

But the song signals a rebirth. As the protagonist dies – a new Callahan is born and the album shifts considerably. ‘Riding for the Feeling’ is a little more straightforward, musically – and it’s absolutely lovely. Callahan sounds resigned to a nomadic life, that his protagonists of the previous songs didn’t quite fit in with the people around them and had no choice. ‘Free’s’ is almost an acceptance of freedom – it’s much more jaunty, with the emotionally direct account of finding happiness. Death strikes again in the album closer, ‘One Fine Morning’, the “drover” from the start comes back to bookend the album in the album longest track. But unlike the rest of the album, there’s real human contact. Even in spite of everything that’s gone on in the past, all the protagonists craved was a bit of human contact – and then the apocalypse wouldn’t be anything to worry about.

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