If a defence of the independent record label business model had to be made, opposed to the “make a hit record or you’re dropped” major label equivalent, here’s a watertight one: if you leave someone to do their thing for long enough, maybe they’ll make a record as universally beautiful as Dream River.
Bill Callahan’s seventeenth album pulls us headfirst into the current from the ambiguous first line of opener ‘The Sing’, drawing out lyrics until it becomes impossible to pinpoint where one image ends and another begins: “Drinking while sleeping /Strangers unknowingly keep me company”. Is Bill getting tipsy in his dreams, or is he the lone, conscious occupant of the bar? Dream River offers us more questions than answers, as ever, full of Callahan’s familiarly distant language and revisiting themes from the whole of his career (previously as Smog, more recently under his own name). The sparse yet somehow lush production, with flange-heavy guitars, is worlds away from his shronky, desolate 1990 debut, Sewn To The Sky. Yet one can clearly follow the transition from Jandek-like young loner through Americana-influenced misanthropy to Callahan’s current incarnation as a gruff but quietly tender songwriter in the vein of the North American greats.
Rivers have long been a staple of Callahan’s imagery, be they a place for swimming criminals to find redemption, a destination for a robot searching for an impossible drink, or even personified as Callahan himself; his lover a willow tree, twigs snapping in the breeze and floating along him. The river of dreams here is viewed mostly from above and always from the outside. Continuing to make reference to his sizeable body of work, Callahan seems to be breaking free from it, even transcending it. ‘Small Plane’ feels like Callahan soaring out of the loneliness of past work, no longer the river himself, but using it as a map or reference point for himself and his co-pilot to find their way home, as close as a partnership can be, placing their lives in each others’ hands. “I like it when I take the control from you / And when you take the control from me“.
In the company of Callahan’s last two releases under his own name (2009’s Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle and 2011’s Apocalypse) this trajectory makes perfect sense. Dream River at times feels like a combination of both with nods to his twenty-plus years of recorded work, alongside other more ineffable influences. The slight yet consistent changes in style and lyrical ideology from album to album have slowly come together, allowing Callahan to drift from the backwaters of 1990s American alt-folk towards, if not exactly the mainstream, certainly the high water mark of poignant contemporary American songwriting. It feels as if this river is getting ever closer to the sea.