Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle – Bill Callahan
Just as I thought I was tiring of the alt-country/new folk revival, along comes an album – from one of the scene’s relative old timers – of such immersive beauty that I can’t get enough of it. While there is much about Bill Callahan’s ‘Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle’ that is rooted in well-trodden Americana traditions, there is no questioning his authentic, subversive spin on the genre. Callahan’s second under his own name having apparently abandoned the Smog alias (under which his albums must number in double figures). ‘Sometimes … ‘ is a sultry, richly atmospheric pleasure from start to finish. As Smog, it seems Callahan was often painted as some kind of miserabalist Leonard Cohen wannabe. but here the singer is found in pensive and reflective, rather than melancholy spirit. His ruminating, semi-spoken vocal delivery reminds me somehow of a less lascivious Serge Gainsbourg: the loose, the swirling orchestrations that complement these songs are as dynamic as those on ‘Histoire de Melody Nelson’ (minus the Gallic funk) and as richly textured as Lambchop’s ‘Nixon‘ (minus the southern-fried Soul).
According to the sleeve notes, ‘Sometimes … ‘ was produced by ‘Raven! Are you bleeding? Oh! Raven! I did not mean to cut you! Raven! I was only kicking as a cricket in your beak! Raven! I only want to live!’, who unsurprisingly does not feature on Allmusic or Wikipedia. However, Brian Beattie deserves maximum plaudits for the orchestral arrangements throughout the album, which are elegant, wistful, and occasionally even a little romantic. While lush they are never over-wrought, clumsy or over-literal, but hover instead, ebbing and flowing around the Callahan’s baritone. This proves the perfect counterpart to Callahan’s exploratory, unconventional songwriting, melding together into engaging mood pieces that flower and evolve unhurriedly rather than travel in straight lines.
The opening three tracks set an extraordinarily high standard for the album that Callahan almost, but not quite sustains. The opener ‘Jim Cain’ typifies the album’s mood of nostalgia and reconciliation, sounding like a man blissfully at peace with himself, even if the words do not always support this. The brilliant single ‘Eid Ma Clack Shaw’ recounts the singer dreaming the perfect song, awaking to write it down, only to find the lyrics in the morning to be the gibberish of the title. Both funny and somehow touching, it is also the closest the album gets to being radio friendly. By contrast, ‘The Wind and the Dove’ is dark, Arabesque trip hop, with a shiver-inducingly poignant chorus.
After the opening triumvirate, the breezier ‘Rococo Zephyr’ feels less substantial, while the yearning, locomotive ‘My Friend’ would be perfect for watching landscapes unfold. ‘All Thoughts Are Prey to Some Beast’ evolves from a hypnotically dicordant loop of guitar that reminded me vaguely of Boards of Canada’s cassette-warped abstraction, French Horns underlining the rises and falls in orchestral tension. Other songs revolve around economic wordplay. On Too Many Birds’, Callahan sings the touchingly oxymoronic “If only we could skip a heartbeat for just one heartbeat” in refrain, adding a new word with each repetition. Starting with simple acoustic strums, lusher instrumentation imposes itself as the sentence is completed, gradually embellished with violin and piano and increasingly assertive percussion. Similarly, each line in the hypnotic ‘Faith/Void’, with the refrain “It’s time to put God away … I put God away”, is finished with some beautifully low-end guitar notes in a delightful call and response. A heady, evocative album.