Bill Callahan, once described by the late comedian Sean Hughes as the ‘leader’ in the fraternity of ‘miserable bastards of the world’, is on a post pandemic mission. Astonishingly, given a career of cussedness and existential woe, it is to mend and cheer us up. On the publicity blurb for his first London gig since 2014, he says ‘since the world is broken in two and we are living growling in the remains’ he vows to ‘make glue. We will make sunshine or we will at least intoxicate you’.
Certainly his three solo releases since 2019, the latest of which is Reality, are redolent of a man who has made peace with the world, taking comfort in the simple pleasures of nature and family. He wanted horns on the album because they’re rousing ‘heralds’ of ‘triumph’. Natural Information, on the bill here, is positively bouncy. The set consists almost exclusively of tracks from this new reality. However, pared down on stage and stripped of female backing vocal, they feel just as tortured and sardonic as the meat and drink of the preceding five solo albums, that superseded his vanishing from Smog in the mid-2000s. The mordant, trademark wit is still at large in the songwriting. In Everyway he says ‘I feel something coming on, a disease or a song’ and goes on to describe a group of shipwrecked sailors warming their hands in the corpse of a wild horse with the quip ‘at least we’re all in this horse together’. On the brilliant Coyote he sings of the curses of middle age, his ‘nostrils are hippies’ while he scours the streets for tweezers.
Suited and looking uncannily like a silver haired Bryan Ferry, as with early Roxy Music, he remains a master of irony and self-regard. There’s a meta element to some of the latest material. Lyrics that reference song process.
For the first time seer of the Callahan shtick in person, the show is surprisingly devoid of repartee for one so lyrically gifted. True to form, he doesn’t serve what is customarily expected. Obdurate to the last, it seems he won’t re-appear for an encore and, when he eventually does, it feels like a refreshing capitulation to necessity rather than something pre-ordained and planned for. On a Hank Williams Junior cover, O.D’ed in Denver, his voice never lets rip as the melody seems to demand. Callahan curtails and wraps the chords with the customary brogue that perennially warms, his voice an aural glowing log on the hearth. Ever lo-fi. The arrangements are as always ingenious. Matt Kinsey employs all the sonic tricks on guitar that delight on his studio outings. Jim White of Dirty Three fame, `complements the wistful melody and shifts to raw power that characterise many of Callahan’s best work, as he brings the drumstick down with the crack of a whip or caresses the drums with whispering brush strokes. Most strikingly, Dustin Laurenzi’s tenor sax is used subtly as a component of rhythm rather than in statement, declarative solos.
If there’s a weakness it’s that the Austin songwriter’s indie folk and almost spoken Americana, even if now plumped with optimism, feels musically a road much travelled before by him and struggles fix the attention for the solid two hours. Naked Souls, for example, is a dirge that fails to ignite. There is much talk of dreams on Reality and here, while brilliantly performed, they are only partially realised.
Words by Adrian Cross