Bill Callahan is a veteran when it comes to putting out records. As his former moniker Smog, he released 11 albums spanning 15 years, and almost all of them were REALLY good. Since dropping the Smog name, he has released three studio albums. Dream River is his fourth, and comes highly anticipated after the success of his last two solo albums, both being very well received. While the albums he released under the Smog pseudonym were more in line with what might be referred to as 'indie' or 'lo-fi', his self-titled Callahan releases are definitely more along the lines of traditional folk or country music. Dream River is no exception to this, with sounds ranging from Townes Van Zandt to Frankie Miller in influence and more traditional instrumentations.
Dream River starts with “The Sing” a moody minimalist ballad of day drinking and has a strong sense of Americana. The crisp violin in and out of the tune seems reminiscent of an Emmylou Harris 70s album. Its lyrics are very Bill Callahan: Uplifting in sound and at first glance, but incredulously sad upon closer examination. The album definitely seems to pine for a younger simpler America, without plastic mouldings and internet culture. The phrase, perhaps a bit overused but definitely true in this case, Callahan is truly an old soul in a young form. His lyrics confirm this.
One of the best songs on the album is “Small Plane” a reflecting track, with a sense of Bill Callahan genuinely looking back at his monstrously impressive discography, perhaps his past relationships, including a long and wonderful stint with folk singer Joanna Newsom, and when he sings “I really am, a lucky man,” the truth in his voice is staggering. Some of the middle of the record is a little weaker. Tunes like “Ride my Arrow” and “Summer Painter” are not necessarily bad songs, but are overshadowed intensely by the rest of the record. The instruments on “Summer Painter” seem jagged and uncoordinated at times. Like someone said “well, we have to add this…” and ended up with a bunch of effects and sounds that just make it sound messy and don’t add to the overall quality of the song.
The lyrics are wonderful of course though; Callahan’s poetic lyricism is always his ace in the hole. The album isn’t without Bill Callahan’s traditional tearjerker. Since albums like The Doctor Came at Dawn, Callahan’s been releasing albums with tracks that will absolutely tear your heart out. Dream River is no exception. The final track “Winter Road” is a resolute and weary one, echoing with the tired lyrics of a man who has written hundreds of such tracks and really means what he’s singing. He’s lived it, he knows what he’s talking about. Something about his deep and masculine vocals singing sweet and sad lyrics are particularly potent and touching. Again, the sense of Americana in the album is enormous. The very artwork makes this apparent, perhaps paying homage to great watercolour paintings by early American landscape artists like Carl Oskar Borg, Thomas Cole and William Bradford. It’s a very relationship focused record.
While Callahan has been writing songs about women since the 80s, it’s pretty obvious he’s in a relationship now and is writing songs about it. He seems happier – perhaps more optimistic than his time writing a record like A River Ain’t Too Much to Love or The Doctor Came at Dawn. The songs in general on the album show his progression in only a few short years. His last two albums Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle and Apocalypse were both extremely well received, better perhaps than even the majority of his Smog albums. So the expectations for Dream River were fairly high. And it does seem to pay off fairly well. Though it doesn’t perhaps hold the sheer brilliance of Eagle, it’s a close second and a record to be proud of.