Fun Fun Fun Fest: Bill Callahan’s dreamy Dream River


“Write drunk; edit sober,” they say, and here I am again, clutching a coffee cup, nursing a hangover, trying to write, no longer intoxicated but still haunted by the ghosts of beers drunk. Close enough. I spent yesterday evening watching SiP SiP and the Ghost Wolves and a bunch of other great bands play the Oxblood Masquerade, a Halloween-themed campout festival; having drank and danced until I forgot I was dressed as a sunflower, and having faced an all-night thunderstorm laying wide-eyed in a leaky tent, I’m currently trying to navigate a brain fog so thick I can’t see fifty neurons in front of me.

Fortunately, Bill Callhan’s Dream River is the type of album that just kind of washes over you. A listen-through feels much like the title suggests: washed-out, dreamy electric guitar passages flow one to the next sans resistance, meandering and hypnotic as a ride down a river. Keep on that river long enough, and you’ll find yourself fully seduced, immersed in a strange soundscape with only Callahan’s contemplative baritone as your guide. You may start to feel like you’re listening to a meditation tape.

Production here is sparse, yet spacious; modest arrangements belie the enormity of the aural space. Callahan draws attention to the lonesome nature of his soundscapes early on, musing on opener “The Sing”:

Outside a train sings its whale song
To a long, long train long, long gone
Then silence comes back alone
High as scaffolding

Lyrically, Callahan relies on a mythology of symbols to color his tales of inward experience. He begins developing his focal dualism, that of water and sky, in the second track, “Small Plane.” The river represents fate (“I always went wrong in the same place / Where the river splits towards the sea / How could that be you and me?”), whereas the sky is the place of dreams and possibilities (“I never like to land / Getting back up seems impossibly grand / We do it with ease”). Dream River – get it?

He boils down this central problem rather poetically on “Ride My Arrow”:

The eagle flies using the river as a map
A small animal in its clasp
Alive and enjoying the ride
Is life a ride to ride?
Or a story to shape and confide?
Or chaos neatly denied?

It’ll be no surprise to his fans that his lyrics are up to snuff. The real treat here is the subtle, ever-morphing instrumental parts. He evokes some mind-blowingly delicious guitar textures, and the frequent use of flute and hand drums gives the album a spooky American Indian vibe. File this under hazy, pensive ear candy fit for a foggy head, but be aware – with its visceral, cryptic lyrics and restrained, nuanced playing, Dream River will challenge you as much as you want it to.

– Kevin Allen

Editor’s Note: Callahan, based in Austin for longer than us here at OVRLD, will be headlining the Yellow Stage on Friday night for Fun Fun Fun Fest.