My relationship with Bill Callahan/Smog albums goes through ups and downs. After the career highs of 'Red Apple Falls' (hushed magnificence) and 'Knock Knock' (art rock magnificence) came 'Dongs of Sevotion' and 'Supper' which to my ears were just so-so. Then in 2005 he released 'A River Ain't Too Much To Love' which knocked me over with it's stripped-down folk take on the Smog sound. But the follow-up 'Woke on a Whaleheart' (the first album where he dropped the 'Smog' moniker) I never really 'got' and stopped listening to fairly quickly. So what to make of the release this week of 'Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle'?
Well after a couple of listeners, it's definitely a keeper and may even be up there amongst his very best. And it's not a 'return to form' - it's a subtley different and new development. It takes the assured, philosophical songs of 'A River..' but places them in a beautiful, gossamer-light orchestral arrangements. Drums, bass and guitar play their part but hovering in the background are these delicate strings and horns that reflect the beauty and wonder the songs find in nature.
Bill never likes to make it easy - biographical details are scant, his lyrics can be highly ellipitical, he is taciturn when performing or in interview. But on this record whilst the lyrics are still quasi-philosophical ("how can a wave possibly be?") they are sung by a man who sounds at utter peace with the world. This sense of ease, the wonder at the natural world (birds, winds, trees inhabit every song) and the inventive musical flourishes that give each song a unique identity combine to a winning formula. Some of those flourishes: 'The Wind and The Dove' starts with arabic horns, 'Eid Ma Clack Shaw' is a graceful march, 'Rococco Zephyr' has piano suggesting water ripples and wavering strings suggesting the breeze. And the final eight minute song 'Faith/Void' is almost soulful in its repetition of the phrase 'It's Time To Put God Away' over sweeping strings; it's like Al Green turning atheist. Poetic, accessible and wholly beguiling, this is probably going to be one of my favourite records of the year. (I'm just not looking forward to the follow-up).
EID MA CLACK SHAW
Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle [BUY]