Wild Mercury Sound

Bill Callahan: "Rough Travel For A Rare Thing"

John Mulvey

Strange beast, this, since I don’t have details about when and where this new Bill Callahan live album was recorded. Weirdly, the 11 tracks on “Rough Travel For A Rare Thing” don’t include anything from last year’s “Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle”, which would suggest that the performances date from between “Woke On A Whaleheart” (“Diamond Dancer” is here) and that exceptional album. But then again, Callahan has long proved he’s much too capricious a performer to make any such obvious assumptions.

Provenance notwithstanding, “Rough Travel…” is a terrific summary of Callahan’s long-running excellence as a singer-songwriter. It contains a bunch of songs I’d hope would be on a de facto greatest hits – “Cold Blooded Old Times”, “Bathysphere”, “Let Me See The Colts”, for a start. But it’s a tribute to Callahan’s unshowy consistency that there are one or two songs here, just as strong, that I must confess I couldn’t even remember.

“Our Anniversary”, the opening track, is a case in point. A quick look on my iTunes reveals that the original appeared on “Supper”, possibly the Smog album I know least well. Here, it rolls along for seven compelling minutes, with that unwavering linear momentum that is something of a Callahan trademark. There’s a simple folksy warmth to the accompaniment: gently twanging and circling acoustics; the crack and rustle of drums which suggests the spirit, if not necessarily the physical presence, of Jim White; occasional slithers of violin which contribute a general freewheeling air redolent of the Rolling Thunder Revue.

Callahan’s voice, as ever, sits on the cusp of actual singing, his genius lying as much in the unpredictable gaps between the words as in the way he delivers the words themselves. Listening to a Bill Callahan record can often be like having a conversation with someone who lapses into abrupt silences at key moments, switching suddenly from stark description to dark implication. Translated into song, it’s a striking trick, at once intimate and unnerving.

Miraculously, too, what could be chilly and alienating often comes across as unusually involving, never more so than on the one-two of “Rock Bottom Riser” and “Let Me See The Colts”. These are great songs and increasingly, I do wonder whether posterity – or at least myself, nostalgically – might come to see Callahan as one of the very best songwriters of these past 20 years. It was good to see “I’m New Here” cropping up on the new Gil Scott-Heron album, and considering his take on “I See A Darkness”, it’s easy to imagine Johnny Cash would have made the most of, say, “I Break Horses” or “The River Guard”.

I guess Callahan’s greatest gift is for those parched ballads, but he also has great skills at nudging the same sort of songform into tight, propulsive pop music, of a kind: the determinedly rumbling “Cold Blooded Old Times” here, for instance, has the snap of the VU circa “Loaded”. By the end, his fine band have picked up a real head of steam. Sounds like a great gig.


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