Friday, August 26, 2011

Cowboy Music for the End of the World

The real people went away.

Apocalypse starts with these words--an unaccompanied voice, half spoken, half sung-- and initiates the seven song tangle of themes of isolation, artistic creation, temporality, and cataclysm that Bill Callahan's new album seeks to make sense of. As the album progresses the notion of apocalypse becomes more personalized and more closely related to artistic production, eventually culminating in Callahan's apocalypse being the album, Apocalypse, itself.

As a lyricist Callahan is more like Wallace Stevens or William Carlos Williams than T.S. Eliot, so there's no overarching symbolic system (as far as I can tell) in a particular song or an album as a whole. But there is plenty of thematic use of imagistic language and metaphor, much of which I think seeks to inject an emotional content into the narrative sketch. The songs are story songs, mostly, but the story is normally confined to a brief and partially described episode. The story is there, but it is the feeling he seems to be getting after.

Callahan's work has often made extensive use of natural metaphors (which I talked some about here), and Apocalypse is no exception. "Drover"opens the album, a song that evokes a barren western landscape stark enough to make Cormac McCarthy feel lonesome. Here we get the first connection between isolation and musical creation: I'll find a better way, someday/ Leaving only me and my dreams/ My cattle and a resonator. This isolation expresses itself in a relativized temporality: Then I set my watch against the city clock/ It was way off.

The narrator loses control of his cattle, which turn on him, symptomatic of the wild, wild country that we are told takes a strong, strong/ breaks a strong, strong mind. He tells us, I was knocked out cold for one clack of the train track/ Then I rose a colossal hand buried, buried in sand/ I rose like a drover/ For I am in the end the drover. It is unclear whether this resurrection is an affirmation of the life of the musical drover or a resignation to it, but one thing is clear. Meaning is found in it: anything less makes me feel like I'm wasting my time.

"Baby's Breath" internalizes the struggle against isolation and temporality expressed as external metaphor in "Drover." Here the narration alternates between the present tense with a sense of loss and flashbacks to a fleeting past of a young girl at the wedding/ Baby's breath in her hair/ A crowning lace above her face/ That will last a day/ Before it turns to hay. The tempo of the song accelerates and slows as the narrator bounces back and forth between present and past, as a musical metaphor for the contrast between the real passage of time and the feeling of time bound up with memory. The narrator, pulling weeds, cries out in supplication, but ultimately there is no one to hear: Oh I am a helpless man, so help me/ I'm on my knees... gardening.

In "America!" the protagonist is isolated in another country ("Austral-i-a"), waxing poetic about his homeland (you are so grand and golden), wanting to be home. It captures all the salient features of our nation: David Letterman, aggressive war, scarcity, and country music. (Captain Kristofferson, Buck Sargent Newberry, Leatherneck Jones, Sargent Cash: are these country musicians the four horsemen of Callahan's Apocalypse?) It gets my vote to replace "The Star Spangled Banner," (which Kurt Vonnegut rightly described as "gibberish sprinkled with question marks") as our national anthem.

"Universal Applicant" finds its narrator kidnapped and set adrift on a boat armed with only a flare gun (after eating honey from a dead buffalo's chest, of course), which he fires into the air, seeking help (To the universe it applies). Instead of getting an answer, the flare sets his boat on fire and it sinks into the water.

"Riding for the Feeling"is a song about the pain and isolation of moving on (I asked the room if I'd said enough, and no one really answered) but the existential fulfillment that comes with it. On the one hand it's never easy to say goodbye but on the other, leaving is easy/ when you've got someplace you need to be. He connects his perpetual motion (all this leaving is never ending) to the idea of apocalypse; he finds himself alone in a hotel room listening to his recordings, demos that represent this personal musical apocalypse. I'm giving up this gig for another season/ TV on mute I listen back to the tapes/ On the hotel bed/ my my my apocalypse. And what is his existential therapy for this cataclysm? More movement, but now movement for its own sake: Riding for the feeling/ is the fastest way to reach the shore.

"Frees" has the singer standing alone in a field (a field of questions) and wondering is this what it means to be free? He proposes a definition of freedom born out of isolation, and then answers in the affirmative: To belong to being derided for things I don't believe/ And lauded for things I did not do/ If this is what it means to be free/ Then I'm free.

"One Fine Morning" returns to the themes presented in "Riding for the Feeling." One fine morning/ I'm gonna ride out/ Just me and a skeleton crew/ We're gonna ride out in a country kind of silence. The apocalypse is all coming back to me now, and he insists there will be no more droverin'. At the end of the song, the last words of the album, the source Bill's personal apocalypse is revealed; his apocalypse is his own creation: DC 450, the Drag City catalog number for Apocalypse.

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