There were all of those albums as Smog – and some as (Smog) – and though they all stand up and deserve to be compared to/celebrated with the entire discography there is just something a little (more) special about the records Callahan has released under his own name. They’re coming thick and fast – he’s always been prolific but he’s showing no signs of slowing. That voice becoming ever more comforting even when – perhaps especially when – it tells you the sickest, strangest things. So with Dream River you can be delighted as Callahan tells you on the opener, The Sing, that the only things he’s said all day are ‘beer’ and ‘thank you’ and then he repeats those words over, not quite a mantra but somewhere in the spaces we’re allowed to fill in our own short story.
Goddamn he’s a great writer. And these albums arrive as if chapbooks, little texts to take away and study. The music hypnotic, beguiling, lovely, tender, a patchwork Americana, that voice an instrument all on its own and of itself – but it’s the words. These dark, lovely, sometimes terrifying little tales that he dreams up and whisper-burrs in your ear in just the perfect way always.
Javelin Unlanding has a circular guitar figure that might have come from someone else’s learn-to-play-jazz-in-a-day book but when augmented with the flute loop and that softly paddling percussion it’s a subversion of the Native American spirituals and then on Small Plane he’s about as minimalist, music-wise, as a Tom Waits ballad or a recent Leonard Cohen song. We get that slow-burn bursting through again on Spring, the guitar uncoiling as the tale unfurls.
Callahan’s working in a post murder-ballad world, sometimes it feels more like a set of post-murder ballads even, but always there’s glimpses of a very subtle urgency in his writing, in the way he delivers the words. There’s a struggle and lurch that’s not so much in hope of any redemption as it is in just soldiering on. You start to imagine these songs as people, as people out by their campfires, the tent all set up for the night – or the month – with almost all of the their worldly possessions able to be packed up in 30-40 minutes tops.
This 40-minute set of songs feels like so many worldly possessions. And it feels like you get more from it with each listen, just as Callahan seems to be giving more – of himself – to (and in) every album.
These songs seem to sit in a suspended time – in a space all of their own. That’s where they’re best observed and listened to. You need to make time to get to these and take time to get to know them. Callahan’s writing prose-poems from his soul. He’s creating the best kind of soul music there can be. It’s hauntingly surreal and so very real – so pure – all at once.