While we have more than a handful of months until the doors close on 2003, it’s safe to say that Supper – the latest offering from Mr. Bill Callahan – is a strong early contender for Record of the Year. A nine-song helping of laid-back country-blues, signature acoustic fare, and more band-driven rock sides, it’s also safe to say that Supper is one of the most complete discs Callahan has released in a number of years.
Though it follows the recent odds-and-ends collection Accumulation: None and the often-murky Rain on Lens (2001), Supper owes a lot in terms of its sound to Red Apple Falls, whose beautiful acoustic gems saw the light of day in 1997. But more has changed in the last five or six years than Callahan placing parentheses around his chosen moniker.
On Red Apple Falls, Callahan carried the majestic minimalism and dark ruminations of The Doctor Came at Dawn (1996) from the cold of winter into the warm light of early spring, accenting his lonely acoustic guitar with slide, pedal steel, organ and piano. The music still quivered and ached (look at “Blood Red Bird, “To Be of Use,” and others), but its sense of color and scope also blossomed and bloomed.
There’s a similar feeling to Supper. Callahan’s repeating measures on acoustic guitar are far from buried on the record, but they are buttressed by sometimes-twangy backing guitar, Ken Champion’s pedal steel, the loose drumming of Jim White, and backing harmonies by Callahan himself and the syrup-voiced Sarabeth Tucek. While prolific label-mate Will Oldham has returned to his more stark folk roots on the recent Master and Everyone, Supper features more than a few songs that could have felt right at home on Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s Ease Down the Road (2001) or Oldham’s Joya (1997).
The finest of these relaxed country-folk-blues explorations may be “Feather by Feather,” which opens the record with a distant organ and Callahan’s resonating voice, only to unfurl itself into a sleepy piece walked along by electric guitar and pedal steel. On the song, Callahan’s melancholic voice is almost buoyed by Tucek’s soft harmonies. Tucek doesn’t lend the same spine-chilling breathiness and dynamics of former (Smog) contributor Cynthia Dall, but she offers a necessary air to several songs, including the question-and-answer verses of “Truth Serum.” Elsewhere, backing vocals lend an almost communal feel to the proceedings, as they do on the country-folk refrains of “Vessel in Vain.” It’s a reminder that Callahan is no longer the lo-fi noise artist or the singer/songwriter in painful isolation; he’s being joined on a summer porch for an early evening jam session.
Supper is far from just a sampling of familiar fare and offers some new twists on the dirgy swamp rock that Callahan batted around on Rain on Lens and Knock Knock (1999). “Butterflies Drowned in Wine,” “Morality,” and “Ambition” still have their contributions from pedal steel, organ, and acoustic guitar, but they are driven forward by bluesy electric guitar lines, the sorts of choppy licks that wouldn’t be out of place if hammered out by Keith Richards or Lou Reed. The songs, however, keep from getting sucked under by the weight of Callahan’s souped-up electric guitar. In the closing minutes of “Butterflies Drowned in Wine,” Callahan and Tucek’s vocals transcend the dirge and din, their repetitions of the song’s title leading into a closing bridge that almost sprouts a set of wings through repetitions on pedal steel.
Some of the finest moments on (Smog)’s latest, though, may be in its final moments. “Our Anniversary” is exceptionally poppy and easy-going by Callahan standards, defined by lines on electric guitar and pedal steel that would float off into the strata if not for the occasionally multi-tracked weight of Callahan’s voice. His voice also delivers lines that seem miles away from the bleak ruminations on love and relationships that marked so many Smog records in the mid- to late-1990s: “We are far from flowers / Cut and dried / So let us thrive let us thrive / Let us thrive / Just like the weeds / We curse sometimes.” (Whatever happened to the hurt of “All Your Women Things?”)
“Driving” begins as an organic patchwork of disconnected guitar, percussion, found sounds, and banjo, skittering to White’s drum patterns into a more harmonious whole. Callahan and Tucek hold the proceedings together, dreamily repeating the song’s only lyric: “And the rain washed the price / Off of our windshield.” The record closes with “Guiding Light,” which — more than any song on Supper — could be called a brief reprise of the Callahan of The Doctor Came at Dawn and Red Apple Falls. On the song, Callahan’s slowly repeating and heartwrenching acoustic guitar is accompanied only by occasional and minimal percussion, a beautiful reminder of work that now seems almost a career removed. As Callahan sings, ” I must admit I felt some relief / When the sun began to sink,” you almost wish he would keep singing and playing through that familiar dark of night.
As hinted at on Accumulation: None, Callahan has worn more than a fair share of masks and spoken with more than a few different voices, even if they have all been his own. The lo-fi noise artist, the indie-pop ringleader, and the somber acoustic balladeer have given way to a more commercially accessible songwriter on Supper. While longtime fans may wonder if Callahan will ever return to the dark humor and cut-and-paste craftiness of his early work or the majestic reflections of his middle years, Supper is a feast for those who will choose to sit down and enjoy it.