album reviews

Bill Callahan
Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle
Sub Pop (2009)

Emotional Wreck: Bill Callahan, 'Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle'

Whether as Smog or under his own name, Bill Callahan always sounded detached: his husky baritone is more spoken than sung, and his methodical pace and sparse instrumentation add to that dissociated feel.

Despite that, his music is far from emotionless; his latest, "Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle" (Drag City) is so full of breakup tunes that his stoic demeanor sounds more like he's putting up a brave front than just not caring at all.

His heartbreak (he recently split from indie songstress Joanna Newsom, although she's not cited explicitly in any of "Eagle's" songs) reaches out and hits you right upside the head; the second track, "Eid Ma Clack Shaw," opens with the lonely hallucination: "Last night, I swear I felt your touch / gentle and warm / the hair stood on my arm / How? How? How?"

Callahan goes on to describe dreaming about the perfect song ("It held all the answers"), writing it down and revisiting it in a more lucid state only to discover that it's all gibberish — the song's title is a lyric snippet from this song-within-a-song. It's a striking representation of the imbalance between reality and fantasy after a loss, with a dose of Callahan's deadpan humor and irony (and a reminder that even great songwriters have bad days).

Even when Callahan is more reflective, there's still a sense of dejection; "My Friend" sounds so sweet until the growling refrain of "I will always love you — my friend." Callahan chokes out the word "friend" with such a snarl that it instantly conjures every spurious breakup promise of continued friendship. "All Thoughts Are Prey to Some Beast" starts out as a mellow nature metaphor but gallops to a frustrated howl mid-song, while on "Too Many Birds," Callahan builds the line "If you could only stop your heartbeat for one heartbeat" by adding one word with each repeat, and the effect is that he's too choked up to get it all out in one take.

Callahan's best moments are when he mixes hope with despair, as on the nearly 10-minute album-closer, "Faith/Void". The simplicity of Callahan's chant "It's time to put God away" is trancelike, and with repetition, it changes from despondency to a near-optimism as the string accompaniment grows to a delicate shimmer. It's almost too personal of a look inside his psyche; his murmurs of "I put God away" sound like an under-the-breath aside to soldier on even in the face of heartbreak. It's not exactly the sound of Callahan cracking a smile, but it's a poignant emotional depth that we don't often see behind his expressionless demeanor.

Written by Express contributor Catherine Lewis

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.: Originally published: 14 April 2009.
.: Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle on