There was a time in the past when listening to a Bill Callahan album took a degree of preparation. During his days under the Smog pseudonym, the Maryland man was known, as the name suggests, for a greyer, more distorted sound, but anyone who has followed him through the years knows that’s no longer exclusively the case.
Now, as YTI⅃AƎЯ opener First Bird refers to, for an audience “coming out of dreams” and back to reality after the COVID pandemic, most things feel lighter, softer and easier from Callahan. While it’s impossible to say he’s mellowed with age given the depth and variety of that back catalogue, it can feel like there are now fewer holes to jump through to enjoy the more soul-soothing sound he has found in later years.
Not everything is different from the Smog days. Callahan’s lyricism may have become more ethereal, but it’s rooted in the same folklorish storytelling that has earned him many an admirer over the years. Coyotes is a perfect example of how the surrealism and the long, rumbling outros that are so well-known to long time listeners are now being channeled into something altogether more uplifting. “Down through the generations, up through the archives, holding hands through many lines”. Love and fatherhood have undoubtedly changed the man.
YTI⅃AƎЯ is Callahan’s third album in four years from and provides further evidence of just how easy this all comes to him, as the jaunty ‘Natural Information’ brags – “I wrote this song in forever and five.” It’s a song about a moment that’s relatable to many of us, about being present and enjoying the beautiful simplicity of what life can on occasion offer up. In terms of subject, it’s a million miles from what Smog fans would ever have expected to hear back in the early 1990s. For those that fell in love around 2019’s ‘Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest’, it’s more of the same.
Planets is a further dive into this philosophy of enjoying life’s simple pleasures. As Callahan sings of lying on a rock and staring at the stars, it’s almost easy to picture him, somewhere in a Southwestern state, plucking on his guitar and humming the song’s fleeting Hawaiian chant under the American night sky.
There are medatitive moments, as with the hypnotic rhythm of Bowevil and it’s successor Partition, and themes of meditation and self reflection are evident throughout. There are darker moments too, as with Lily, with it’s tender reflections on life of Callahan’s late mother and the aftermath of her passing, just in case you thought this album was nothing but the latest take on modern day mindfulness.
There are moments to revel in the natural world and moments to delve into deeper meanings, as with closer ‘The Last One at the Party’, which is seemingly a tribute to Callahan’s late friend David Berman. It possesses perhaps the most infectious rhythm of the whole album, but the lyrics reveal a mournfulness and bitterness that contrast the song’s genial vibe.
All said and told, YTI⅃AƎЯ represents the latest hour of lo-fi loveliness from the 56 year old Callahan. It may not possess the dark atmosphere of a Smog album, but it holds degrees of gentleness and sombreness in equal measure in his inimitable, surreal style that can provide a degree of escapism in a frantic post-pandemic world.
And in that world, escapism and mindfulness may find itself calling from the shelf more often than not. Sometimes, just sometimes, it’s worth looking at reality in a slightly different way.
Written by Dean Smith