Album: Bill Callahan – Apocalypse

Apocalypse is Callahan’s third studio offering since dropping the Smog moniker, and it is in many ways familiar territory: full of lessons learned the hard way, animals and the land, wry self-scathing philosophy, and everywhere the value of endurance. Musically too, this album is as distinctively Callahan as ever, with his rumbling deadpan delivery, rolling drums and minimal guitar parts. But Apocalypse is no four-track lo-fi experiment. There’s a thematic unity, a precision to the narrative arc, and a restraint and bite in the lyrics which pin the loose arrangements down like iron nails.

Apocalypse reflects on fame, politics and identity in a truly modern voice. “America” is the most slippery of the lot: a sombre, off-kilter piece of satire in which Callahan sits painfully on the fence considering his nationality. Watching David Letterman in Australia, glorifying his grand and gold all-American military heroes, Callahan moves without warning to considering the battles that these men fought: “Afghanistan, Vietnam, Iran, Native American” and concluding brightly “Well everyone’s allowed a past they don’t care to mention/ in America!”

The oddly-titled “Free’s” also acknowledges hypocrisies, although in a more rueful tone. Over a jangly 1960s flute jam, Callahan muses on whether freedom is an intrinsic property of the heart, or whether you must somehow belong to the property of freedom, which he sees as “belonging to being derided for things I don’t believe/ And lauded for things I did not do.”

In “Universal Applicant” these false personalities get drowned in an Amadou and Miriam style guitar-and-shakers riff. He is out in a boat and sets off a flare which falls and burns his boat. With a wry chuckle, “the punk and the lunk and the drunk and the hunk and the monk” all sink into the ocean without a trace.

The opener, “Drover” also see Callahan dwarfed by his surroundings. The “real people” have gone away, and in their absence Callahan is cast as an epic-rustic drover driving his cattle through a timeless American landscape straight from a spaghetti western. Callahan makes it clear that this road was chosen knowing the risks: “One thing about this wild wild country/ it takes a strong, it breaks a strong mind/ and anything less/ makes me feel like I’m wasting my time.” His devotion is to the cattle as beasts of burden who can carry the weight of his pain and frustration, even if he may get swept away by them too. “My cattle bears it all away for me and everyone” he finishes, as though the cattle themselves were a cleansing force.

Something of this theme of cleansing continued throughout the album. In the final song, the gentle “One Fine Morning”, Callahan gleefully imagines how he and his “skeleton crew” will ride out into “a country kind of silence”, seeing the mountains bow down “like a ballet of the heart”.

The intersection or identification of the deeply personal with the vastness of landscape is a Callahan speciality, and throughout Apocalypse he imagines the ways in which a tiny human heart can interact with the vast natural laws of nature, creating a future where he is no more soft and vulnerable as the drover under the pounding feet of the cattle, but ideally suited for the task he sets himself, with no more drovering to do, and unafraid: “for I am a part of the road, the hardest part”.

Words: Jen Rouse

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