Dream River is the fourth album released under Bill Callahan’s name, and further explores the introverted landscape mapped by his previous releases. It is not the most cheerful of places, to be sure, but there is room for irony and muted beauty among the melancholy and disturbing vistas.
Ominous guitar chords and eerie flutes accompany both prophet-like declarations (“the blinding lights of the kingdom can make you weep”) and less profound confessions (“the only words I said today were ‘beer’ and ‘thank you’”). Whatever we think of his sparse lyrics, Callahan takes us far from the ordinary routes of songwriting. No moon-june rhymes here, and even a common trope — such as spring as a season of hope and love — is subjected to Callahan’s down-beat vision: “Spring looks bad lately anyway,” and “ee call it spring, though things are dying.”
Musically, Dream River sounds like severely stripped-down country-rock. Sometimes a flute defies the silence, a stray fiddle or electric guitar wanders in and out of the music. Yet, it’s the voice that commands our attention. Alternately calling to mind Lou Reed, Leonard Cohen and Nick Cave in his mellower moments, Callahan’s approach to vocals is minimalist to say the least. In a matter-of-fact yet urgent intonation, that often hardly rises above a mumble, he spins his strange poetry of emptiness.
Some of these songs are odd to the point of bewilderment on first listen, but with repeated hearings acquire a charm all of their own. Like all great musicians, Callahan does not reach out to his audience in an effort to entertain or move them. Never a crowd-pleaser, he tells his muted stories seemingly to quiet his own spirit. The listener must reach out to him, and is rewarded with an experience quite unlike anything else in popular music: poetic and witty, disturbing and strangely moving.