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Bill Callahan - Woke On A Whaleheart [Drag City - 2007]

Woke On A Whaleheart is Bill Callahan's first album under his own name, after many albums as Smog and a couple as (Smog). A River Ain't Too Much to Love, the last (Smog) album was a mellow rootsy album which dwelled on things domestic through oblique narratives. Woke On A Whaleheart continues many of the themes begun on the aforementioned album, and builds on them, making this perhaps his most poignant album to date

Bill Callahan over the years has been accused of writing cold impersonal songs, told from the point of view of a detached character, in order to keep some distance between the songwriter and the listener. Although on the surface the accusation appears to be true some of the time, the validity of the criticism is questionable. It's telling that early Smog lyrics reference Travis Bickle, the anti-hero played by Robert Deniro in the film Taxi Driver. Some of Callahan's songs could indeed be compared to Paul Schrader's Taxi Driver script. The listener is placed in a situation, and since it's told in the first person, the experience can be a bit disquieting. There's no escape from the narrative. Callahan's songs always question and provoke thought, and even when written from an impartial point of view, they're anything but impersonal.

The music on Woke On A Whaleheart is full bodied, expanding on the somewhat skeletal, semi-acoustic sound of A River Ain't Too Much to Love. Neil Michael Haggerty (Ex-Royal Trux, Howling Hex) co-produced this album, and it's warmly recorded. The arrangements are for the most part simple and these songs are probably the most "normal" sounding of Callahan's catalogue. "Normal" of course being a relative term, as these songs retain some of the hallmarks of past Smog recordings such as repetition and simplicity. The music makes perfect sense with the lyrics, which are (for the most part) gentle, earthy and thought provoking.

The album opens with From the Rivers to the Ocean, a languid, orchestrated tune, complete with strings. It reads more or less as a love song, albeit in a somewhat abstract way. Footprints expands on the flying imagery first introduced by Callahan on Feathers, which appeared on (Smog)'s 2003 album Supper. Flying as a metaphor is left up to interpretation here; whereas Feathers seemed to fairly clearly represent the loss of feathers as symbolism for domesticity, Footprints could be referring to love or freedom. Diamond Dancer, also released as a single, is a catchy funk inflected tune, which in a just world would be a Top 40 hit.

Sycamore continues the recycling of metaphors with a boxing reference (also having made an appearance on Supper). Although the reference has been used before, like the others, the context is changed, so the meaning is different. Therefore it doesn't come off as lackadaisical. I could go on about the perceived subject matter of each one of these songs, but that would be pointless. The meaning within Callahan's words and music, like all great art, are meant to be interpreted by the individual.

Rating: 5 out of 5Rating: 5 out of 5Rating: 5 out of 5Rating: 5 out of 5Rating: 5 out of 5

Erwin Michelfelder
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