Grantland - September 2013
A journey into the collective unconscious with the enigmatic singer-songwriter
The following is the plot synopsis of the film that plays in my mind when I listen to Bill Callahan’s new album, Dream River:
Fade in on a guy sitting at a hotel bar. He’s surrounded by people he doesn’t know. He senses that he is experiencing a lucid dream. The repetitiveness of his patter with the bartender — “beer … thank you … beer … thank you” — sets his mind adrift. He’s in bed with a woman. (Is this a sex dream? No, it’s a death dream.) He’s flying an airplane with the woman as his copilot, and feels an intense, perfect love. “I like it when I take the controls from you, and when you take the controls from me,” he tells her. He falls from the sky and is in the dirt. (This is definitely a sex dream.) All I want to do is make love to you … with a careless mind, he thinks. The man suspects that he is the man and the woman, and he’s also an eagle in the sky and a small animal the eagle is holding in his grasp. He realizes he is in complete control of what’s happening in his dream — the problem is that the other people in his dream who are also him realize this, too. They blame him for causing a hurricane, just because he happens to live by the sea. He leaves the sea in the form of a seagull. He wonders if he will ever wake up. “I mean really wake up,” he says aloud. He’s driving down a dangerous road — as a man and not a seagull — and listens to a Donald Sutherland interview on the truck radio. He knows he’s awake now. He can see himself, as if in a movie. It’s an establishing shot: He’s headed toward a bright light, possibly another car. The blinding lights of the kingdom can make you weep, he thinks. He tells himself to “just keep on, keep on.” Fade out.
Bill Callahan sketches out his songs lyrics first. The music takes shape once he enters the studio. “I always feel like the sound is already out there,” the 47-year-old singer-songwriter said. “I just need to find it.” Last October, when recording his forthcoming new album, “Dream River” (out Sept. 17), over six days at the Austin, Tex., studio Cacophony, he decided the sound he needed was dub. So he left room in the arrangements of several songs to give himself the option of concocting dub interpretations.