By Nick Owen
Bill Callahan has long had a thing for horses. So many of the mercurial artist’s songs are in someway related to them that you could easily compile an equine-related best of alone. The latest release of the artist formerly known as Smog – née (Smog) – adds yet more to the collection.
Apocalypse is steeped in frontier imagery. As cattle are driven across the Plaines and the smell of sage and mesquite are kicked into the air, you can almost feel the scorching sun on your neck. This is a truly American record, and one demonstrating a deep, yet troubled, love for those United States. It is also Callahan’s finest collection of songs in years.
The galloping acoustic guitar and erratic fiddle of album opener Drover puts you in the saddle of a speeding colt, riding abreast of livestock under expansive Western skies. This is a frenetic love song to the freedom of roaming, yet Callahan reminds us everyone need not apply: “One thing about this wild, wild country,” the mantra begins in his resigned baritone, “It takes a strong strong / It breaks a strong strong mind / And anything less makes me feel like I’m wasting my time.”
By the end of the first half of the record we reach America!, an incredibly weird little number of guilt and protest. With a jumping base line, the song begins with a bizarre profession of longing: “I watched David Letterman / In Australia / Oh America! / You are so grand and golden / I wish I was on the next flight”. As the song descends into the shortcomings of US foreign and domestic policy over the country’s history, it’s evident that the album hits a low point, but this national anthem rife with sarcasm still has enough oomph to bring it back from the brink.
Though the title of the album may suggest a dark and foreboding theme, it is a personal apocalypse Callahan speaks of: “With the TV on mute / I’m listening back to the tapes / On the hotel bed / My my my apocalypse”. The apocalypse in Riding for the Feeling – arguably his most tender and beautiful song to date – is, for Callahan, a fear of misrepresenting himself over a career that is now into its third decade. Or perhaps it is the fear of a songwriter’s inability to simply make sense of himself.
As the soft strum of guitars and quiet keys introduce One Fine Morning, the finale of Apocalypse’s seven songs, we turn full circle. This time, however, Callahan becomes the horse: “When the earth turns cold / And the earth turns black / Will I feel you riding on my back?” The result of Callahan straining to break from his trademark baritone as he sings of riding beside mountains is absolutely heartbreaking.
In true Callahan style we are left puzzled by the final mutterings of the record. The cryptic code of “D-C-4-5-0” fades out and we are left to contemplate the meaning. That is until we realise he’s been reciting the album’s catalogue code. Take that as you may, this is still my album of the year so far.
Apocalypse is out now on Drag City.