Perhaps he’s been inspired by the way his other half, Joanna Newsom, goes about her work. Perhaps he’s up to some clever contract shenanigans. Whatever the real reason, it’s pretty easy to read high creative significance into Bill Callahan‘s decision to drop the Smog brand and release this fine new album, “Woke On A Whaleheart”, under his real name.
More even than his old running mate Will Oldham, Callahan has been a supremely untrustworthy narrator on the winning sequence of albums he’s released over the past decade or so. Believe what he’s singing, and Callahan has routinely emerged as a faintly homicidal misanthrope, a cruel campfire Lou Reed with a thing about rivers and horses. “I told her I was hard to get to know,” he claimed in “I’m New Here” on his last LP, “A River Ain’t Too Much To Love”, “and near impossible to forget.” Fair point.
Has working under his real name changed Callahan? Well, the first track on this new one suggests a change in water imagery, at least, called as it is “From The Rivers To The Ocean”. On a cursory listen, the cruelty which has often been so prevalent on Smog records appears to have been toned down. It’d be a bit risky to claim this is the belated unveiling of the real Bill Callahan. But the publicity photo which accompanies my promo copy – taken by Newsom, perhaps significantly – features him smiling.
He certainly sounds mellower on this nine ambling tunes, too. Again, I haven’t had a chance to scrutinise every lyrical nuance – I’ll save that for the reviewer – and with a baritone like his, anything he sings sounds pretty sombre. But on the likes of “Honeymoon Child”, Callahan certainly gets closer than usual to tenderness as he sings, “You bring out the softness in everyone”.
It’s a lovely-sounding record all round, given woody resonances by co-producer and ex-Royal Trux dude Neil Hagerty and fiddler Elizabeth Warren. “Woke On A Whaleheart” (how much does that sound like a Newsom title, incidentally?) reaches a jolly country climax with “A Man Needs A Woman Or A Man To Be A Man”, an unlikely outpouring of good loving vibes set to a cowboy lollop that pastiches Johnny Cash. And, I suspect inadvertently, reminds me of Val Doonican’s “Walk Tall”. Not a record that springs to mind most days, it’s fair to say.