Bill Callahan picks his words carefully.
If one thing defines his recent work — pastoral, grooving, and far removed from his noisier days recording under the name Smog — it's the way he selects his words. "The only words I've said today are beer and thank you," he croons on "The Sing," the masterful song that opens his recent masterpiece, Dream River.
"Beer . . ./Thank you/Beer . . .
Beer . . ."
With so few words, Callahan paints a sprawling picture. He achieves with little what other storytellers will fumble with a lot. And even more remarkable: Callahan's words sound right; they feel right, in their syllables and consonants, in the way his thumping baritone weaves its way in between the rocks and cacti. It's like Beat poetry with the cinematic scope of a Peckinpah film. Callahan takes pauses, allows the horse's hooves to clop, as he unhurriedly and methodically selects his next phrase.
Callahan's songs, particularly the ones found on records that bear his real name, which he's employed since 2007's Woke on a Whalesong, don't clutter the scene with unnecessary details. They are sparse but full. On Dream River, Callahan adorns his lyrics with subtle country rock, lilting folk. There are congas and flutes, and his accompanying musicians, particularly guitarist Matt Kinsey and bassist Jaime Zuverza, both of whom join Callahan on tour, perform like free-jazz musicians, seemingly defying the gravity of Callahan's booming voice.
Recorded in Texas, a place that seems to have found deep resonance in Callahan's heart, Dream River feels content, but not pie-faced. Callahan is ever wry. "The road is dangerous/Pretty and white," he sings in "Winter Road." "A Donald Sutherland interview comes on/The Truck Radio/He apologizes to all he's loved and sired." And then a dramatic pause: "Long shot of my face."
Callahan's always been funny, but since embarking on his "solo" career, his wit has taken the form of smirks and knowing glances. His funniest moments have also been his most deadpan. On 2011's Apocalypse he sang a song called "Universal Applicant," engaging in breezy existentialism before shooting a flare into the air and sinking his own skiff. "The flare burned and fell, the boat burned as well." He chuckles. "Sunk, sunk, sunk, sunk, sunk," he summaries.
There's nothing so fatalistic on Dream River. Instead, Callahan devotes himself mostly to naturalistic bliss. "Small Plane" finds him in the air with his lover. He likes handing her the controls, and he likes taking the controls back. Even when he sings, "Danger, I never think of danger," Callahan is no unreliable narrator. The guy's comfortable in the cockpit.
Callahan picks his words carefully, and Dream River might be the best lyrical record of the year. He points his gaze toward the sky and toward the range. "Mountains don't need my accolades," he sings in "Spring," which closes side A of the record. But like a good poet, he knows when to look down, too. "All I want to do is make love to you, in the fertile dirt, in the fertile dirt. With a careless mind."
Callahan doesn't just choose the right words; he chooses the good ones.