“I’m going to get right down to business.”
That’s what Bill Callahan says at the beginning of his 2010 live album, “Rough Travel for a Rare Thing,” and it’s a pretty fitting motto for his 20-plus-year career. Callahan wastes no words. See him in concert and he might not address the audience at all. For an interview, he prefers to trade e-mails as opposed to talking on the phone. Each one of his albums is centered on his voice — a penetrating, deadpan baritone — and lyrics. But his ruminations aren’t overflowing with extravagant prose. Callahan’s words are few, but that just makes them hit with more impact. And he has it down to a science.
“I’ve kind of subverted the editing stage,” says Callahan, 45. “There aren’t a lot of drafts these days. I just don’t write words if they aren’t good.”
The words are extremely good on the new “Apocalypse,” Callahan’s third album released under his own name after an 11-album run as Smog. It stands out as a highlight in his remarkably consistent career — an efficient seven-song collection that’s both direct and oblique, tender and tense, introspective and universal.
“Drover” opens the album and, like much of Callahan’s work, is a hypnotic, droning folk song with flourishes of beauty. “I drove them by the crops and thought the crops were lost / I consoled myself with rudimentary thoughts / And I set my watch against the city clock / It was way off,” he sings. It’s a straightforward scene description but still lets listeners form their own conclusions.
Callahan himself isn’t so concerned with what conclusions his audience may come to.
“I just have my thread I am following or seeing through,” he says. “After that, it’s a crap shoot as far as other people’s interpretation.” Following up on that, he frames his process in a typically Callahanian fashion.
“[It’s] like an arrow flying. When writing, you just try to keep the arrow aloft and arcing.”
Callahan’s career has been steadily aloft for some time. As Smog he emerged from a crowded lo-fi scene in the early ’90s to establish himself as one of the underground’s most compelling songwriters. A stunning consistency has arguably helped keep him on the level of cult favorite. He has no consensus “classic” album. (1997’s “Red Apple Falls,” 1999’s “Knock Knock,” 2005’s “A River Ain’t Too Much to Love” and “Apocalypse” would qualify for most.)
He has never taken an extended break from recording and had an album hailed as a comeback. His stylistic shifts have been subtle and slight. His songs achieve catharsis not through crescendos but through meditative repetition. When he repeats the title of “Riding for the Feeling,” its impact increases exponentially until it becomes something of a mantra.
“I tried to approach music-making from a pretty low vantage. Most of my songs come from sea level,” he says of the inherent balance of his songs.
Despite his reliable presence, Callahan possesses a quality seriously lacking in music today — mystique. He simply believes that his music speaks for itself. As a lyricist who is equally concise and incisive, Callahan theoretically could be on a shortlist of best musician Twitterers. But you won’t be following @BillCallahan anytime soon.
“People say this stuff is necessary these days. But is it?” he asks. “A lot of the computer stuff and cellphone stuff is novelty, which is becoming a stronger and stronger human drive. It’s just kind of fluffy.”
As with all of Callahan’s local appearances, Wednesday’s show at the Rock & Roll Hotel will be something of a homecoming. He lives in Austin but was born in Silver Spring and lived in Maryland until his early 20s. He credits the area’s punk institutions — 9:30 Club, DC Space, Yesterday & Today Records — with helping shape his musical identity.
But does location or geography have any influence on his music? The answer could be a mantra-like lyric from an upcoming album.
“I'm usually focused on a horizon that exists only in my mind.”
--David Malitz, July 8, 2011