Bill Callahan, Woke on a Whaleheart

Bill Callahan, Woke on a Whaleheart

Over the past decade and a half, Bill Callahan has gradually evolved from his roots as a lo-fi weirdo into one of the most confident and recognizable voices in the freak-folk movement. With Woke on a Whaleheart, Callahan has stepped, finally, out from behind the mask of his alias, either Smog or (Smog), to claim his rightful place. It’s a largely symbolic step, as the musical difference between Callahan and recent Smog work is marginal. Perhaps the name change reflects Callahan’s ideas about his own artistic maturity: the pseudonym once protected an unsure, fumbling youth, but now Callahan speaks with a security that needs no disguise. This security shows up in Whaleheart‘s frank, unhurried opening track, “From the Rivers to the Seas,” as a “faith in wordless knowledge” — in particular, sexual knowledge: “We got in the river, and it groped us / Made us think of sex between us / At a time in our lives before we knew.”

This knowledge echoes in the indisputable titular truth from the album’s final track: “A man needs a woman or a man to be a man.” Whaleheart interweaves sexuality with spirituality, both mythic (“Diamond Dancer”) and religious (“The Wheel”), but he always keeps transcendental side grounded in the physical world, as on the album’s strongest track, “Sycamore.” That song envisions the tree as a source of strength and truth, in a life represented by a boxing ring: “Love in the wild and fight in a gym… / You won’t get hurt if you keep your hands up and stand tall like sycamore.” It’s a subtle but powerful statement, and it exemplifies the peace, wisdom, and wonder that make Callahan one of the best songwriters of his generation.

(Drag City Records -- 2000 West Carroll Ave #201, Chicago, IL. 60612;; Bill Callahan --
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Review by . Review posted Saturday, June 23rd, 2007. Filed under Reviews.

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