You don't need to hear Bill Callahan's music to feel the magic of his songs: just read his lyrics and the poetry is obvious
To apply the label of poet to a singer-songwriter might well be a losing game, risking the wrath of the poetry academic and earning the scorn of the music critic, not to mention offending the faithful fan.
According to the poet Gregory Orr however, there is little distinction between lyric poetry and popular song in terms of their function in culture. Both have been evolved, Orr explained in his 2002 book Poetry as Survival, "as a means of helping individuals survive the existential crises represented by … such circumstances as poverty, suffering, pain, illness, violence, or loss of a loved one", and both can be equally essential to the spiritual survival of the poet/songwriter and the reader/listener. Orr's thesis represents a refreshing antidote to the analytical take of the Dylanologist, wherein the songwriter's lyrics can be "deciphered" only by those with a PhD in Bob Studies.
I am sure Orr would agree the works of Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits and Nick Cave top the list of poets at work within pop music, a list to which singer-songwriter Bill Callahan also belongs.
Callahan's first albums, released in the early 90s, were lo-fi in the extreme, experimental, almost dissonant. Gradually however, his songwriting developed in a more conventional direction, while remaining no less idiosyncratic. On the 1997 album Red Apple Falls, Callahan recites his confessional lyrics over sparse instrumentation, in what amounts to spoken-word poetry set to an atmospheric musical background. By 2009's Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle, this minimalist aesthetic has evolved into a lush, complex, multi-instrumental musicianship.
The sense that a poet is at work is compounded in no small way by Callahan's delivery. Laconic would be an understatement – he structures his songs in such a way that the pause between phrases of the lyrics would make Harold Pinter uncomfortable. The listener could be forgiven for assuming he has simply forgotten the words.
When they do arrive, however, like the notes of a Miles Davis trumpet solo, they appear at a place in the music both impossible to predict and yet somehow precisely where they were meant to be. One cannot help but feel these pauses as poetic line-breaks, with all the attendant tension and release. In Callahan's lyrics, the pay-off is always worth the wait: "Every time / I get dressed up / I feel like / an ex-con / trying to make good" (Ex-Con, Red Apple Falls, 1997).
While naturally reserved in his delivery, Callahan's phrasing contains a density of meaning and association usually found only in poetry – "The body the rain made / of our days / before we knew" (From The Rivers to the Ocean, Woke on a Whaleheart, 2007). Despite a simplicity of expression, his subject matter often touches on the spiritual – "This is the end of faith / no more will I strive / to find my peace / find my peace in a lie" (Faith/Void, Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle, 2009).
Callahan displays a poet's obsession with particular themes and motifs; rivers and trees appear with regular frequency. Birds, too, are used metaphorically in several songs. Powerful use is made of poetic incantation. In the song Lapse, for example, Callahan asks a series of questions of himself, answering each with the same refrain – "I know / What do you know? / I remember / And I see / What do you see? / I remember" (Songs for Chris Knox, 2009). On Driving, he chants the phrase "And the rain washed the price / off of our windshield" (Supper, 2003) like a Buddhist mantra set to a dreamy, faintly Indian soundscape.
Callahan has been notoriously tight-lipped about his music, and perhaps it adds little to our appreciation of it to guess at his methods. However, it often seems that the music is completely in service to the lyric, that every note exists to lend more emotional power to the words. In Faith/Void, for example, the gentle melody builds throughout the verse to a blissful climax, the loss of faith Callahan describes accompanied contrarily by some of the most spiritually uplifting bars of music you could imagine, conjuring a feeling of freedom and enlightenment echoed, with customary succinctness, in another phrase from Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle – "I used to be / sorta blind / Now I can / sorta see".
• Dream River, Bill Callahan's new album, is out now on Drag City.