Review #5: Woke on a Whaleheart by Bill Callahan
Woke on a Whaleheart - Bill Callahan
After being sucker-punched by 2005's A River Ain't Too Much To Love, I thought I'd learned my lesson with Bill Callahan. He's repeatedly been the Lucy to my music critic Charlie Brown, tricking me into thinking his albums can be easily digested. And I'll promptly lunge into them headfirst, forming preconceptions that I'll imagine I can adhere to. I'll decide that the songs sound kind of homogenous, that this new effort in no way approaches his previous glories, only to later land on my back with a thud. Yet, once again, I found myself speeding inevitably into judgment, declaring Woke on a Whaleheart disappointingly bland after the first ten spins. I pressed on though, in multiples of five, confident that there must be deeper layers I was missing. After all, my favorite albums of Callahan's, Red Apple Falls and A River..., both required similar displays of diligence and faith.
I also pressed on because I was starting to catch more and more details with each subsequent play. As the album's opening piano tinkling foreshadows (and the cover art totally contradicts), there's an emphasis on subtlety here above all else. The set of three gorgeously sustained violin notes contrasting with all of "Diamond Dancer"'s quick, flitting strings, the clips of canned laughter that punctuate countrified spiritual "The Wheel," cryptic lines like "Christian, if you see your papa, tell him I love him" that wink toward religious subtext, the way Callahan's baritone hugs and coils around unexpected words. Indeed, the cardinal rule to remember while listening to Callahan is that subtlety does not equal simplicity.
So now that I've heard it over a hundred times, I can confidently assert it's a very good album. It's wise and thorough and graceful and comfortable, the music equivalent of a calm river or a later Wordsworth poem. And yet some hindrance keeps me from giving it my full adoration. It's the last descriptor—comfortable—that, I think, troubles me the most.
In his peaceful, untroubled storytelling, Callahan can sound almost monastic. He's figured out the answers so now the questions don't affect him. For all the strength of Woke on a Whaleheart, it's also such a direct, natural extension of its predecessor that it sounds practically hereditary. For example, from the genetics of "The Well" and a splice of "In The Pines," he's reinvented "The Wheel." For anyone who's been following Callahan's trajectory from Smog to (Smog) back to Smog and now to this alias-free identity, the fact that he has a fairly narrow style is not news. Still, I can't help wishing that Whaleheart posed a few more challenges to both me and its composer.
Once I get past the comparisons though, past the rankings and the accounting, I'm taken back in by the peacefulness. I'll find myself recharmed by his haiku-like aphorisms and reinspired by the inspiring arrangements. This is a work that flows, that assuages and eases, that isn't trying to outshine anything else and doesn't care where it lands in the pantheon. That's both its strength and its flaw, because of course, Bill Callahan's music is never just one thing. Similarly, Woke on a Whaleheart turned out to be little like I was expecting early on, until at this far-removed point, I'm left with this: it's rich, fluid, meaningful, admirably subtle and ultimately just a little too comfortable. 7.3/10
* MP3: "Footprints" - Bill Callahan from Woke on a Whaleheart
* MP3: "Sycamore" - Bill Callahan from Woke on a Whaleheart [Buy it]