A Reflection on Bill Callahan’s Dream River
by Levi Bagdanov
*I want to clarify at the beginning of this post that, as much as I wish I were, I am not a luddite.
I like to point out sunsets to my wife. She often responds with a simple, “I know” or “Yeah.” My wife, unless it comes to our cat, has a much more intuitive sense of ephemeral beauty than I do and knows when to talk about it and when to simply soak it in. I often feel the need to have my experiences validated by documentation, whether by a photo or an affirmation.
It is for this reason that I feel judged for writing about Bill Callahan’s new album Dream River, which was released September 17 on Drag City Records. Again and again, Callahan’s Dream River critiques our overwhelming need to “capture” the beauty around us rather than rest in the experience of that beauty. It’s as if we no longer trust our own senses—that what is real is only that which is communicated.
He introduces this idea subtly. On the opening track, “The Sing,” Callahan croons:
Giving praise in a quiet way
Like a church
Like a church
Like a church that’s far away.
I am enamored with this simile. Notice the two adjectives: “quiet” and “far.” They invite us to enter into the lyric and listen attentively. The far away church’s presence conjures images that will vary from listener to listener: some may see the church as representing a place of communion with God, while others may simply see it as beautiful building in a pastoral setting. The image is passive. It requires the listener to bring her own associations to the experience; this song’s complexities build on the individual trusting her own interpretations, even those that have not been verified or shared through documentation.
As this and other songs show, Callahan’s lyrics tend to work as a series of simple statements that play off each other, requiring the listener to fill in the missing pieces. Callahan uses this technique with the care and precision of a poet.
The attentive listener will wander deep into these songs and find a rich and vibrant world unraveling before them.
Callahan’s critique of our need to observe and document beauty becomes more pointed on the track “Spring,” where he sings:
And everything is awing and tired of praise And mountains don’t need my accolades.
This is where Callahan brings out the luddite in me.
We live in a culture of oversharing. Whether it’s selfies on social media or album reviews on a literary blog, we (this is true for me, too) have begun to see nearly all of our experiences and opinions as “content.” And when we view our lives as content we begin to see everything around us as content: the friends we have, the concerts we attend and the national parks we visit. How, we implicitly ask, can this content be commodified to promote our selves,
the ones we so carefully groom for presentation, accolades and all?
So: is this constant documentation and packaging of our lives leading us to experience our lives in a less meaningful way or just a different way?
Callahan doesn’t provide much in the way of answers, and neither can I in this instance.
But when Callahan sings, “mountains don’t need my accolades,” he reminds us that the mountains were here long before we were born and they will be here long after we die. He reminds us that the mountains do not need us. But surely, we need them, their accolades. But how do we receive them?
In the final lyrics on the Dream River
record, Callahan comes close to giving his answer to these questions. He sings:
I have learned when things are beautiful To just keep on.
So maybe the next time I see the sun setting over the Pacific, instead of poking my wife on the shoulder and saying, “pretty sunset, huh?” I will try instead to sit in silence and notice the golden light, the way it glitters on her hair.
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