Title: Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle
Format: Single LP
Label: Drag City
Catalogue Number: DC385
Year of Release: 2009
A1 Jim Cain (4:39)
A2 Eid Ma Clack Shaw (4:20)
A3 The Wind And The Dove (4:34)
A4 Rococo Zephyr (5:43)
A5 Too Many Birds (5:27)
B1 My Friend (5:13)
B2 All Thoughts Are Prey To Some Beast (5:53)
B3 Invocation Of Ratiocination (2:42)
B4 Faith/Void (9:44)
I'll admit to being new to Bill Callahan. Apart from when Cold Blooded Old Times hit the UK charts some years ago, I know nothing of his previous work as Smog, or more recently under his own name. I only took a punt on this album to make the shipping costs for getting some Bonnie 'Prince' Billy records over from the U.S. more reasonable.
It turns out this is a much better album than any Bonnie has put out recently, and is fast becoming one of my favourite records of all time. The quality of songwriting on display is breathtaking; intelligent lyrics matched with subtle musical flourishes, bringing a depth of feeling to this record that I haven't heard from any other artist in recent years. By turns playful, serious, warm, tear-jerking and threatening, I'm looking forward to going through Bill's back catalogue to find other gems.
In the meantime, I'll content myself with this record, and I'll start this review with one of the clear highlights Eid Ma Clack Shaw. The title comes from the end of the song, where Bill tells us about a restless night's sleep where he, "dreams the perfect song", and wakes to write them down before falling asleep again. When he wakes up properly, the lyrics are gibberish.
This should be a familiar dream to anyone with an interest in the arts. I have a recurring dream in which I'm writing or reading the perfect novel, and I remember quite clearly from the dream thinking, "I'll be able to recreate this when I wake up, no problem". And when I do wake up, of course I can't.
My dream says more about my work-ethic and ego (none of it positive) than my talents as a writer. What Bill does with this song is add the dream story (and its attendant meanings), itself is a great piece of songwriting, on to the end of an already brilliant song. Eid Ma... begins with the a cappella line, "Working through death's pain..."; a bassline comes in that bears more than a passing resemblance to Psycho Killer, and then the song continues:
Last night I swear I felt your touch
Gentle and warm
The hair stood on my arms
How, how, how?
Show me the way, show me the way, show me the way
To shake a memory
Like any singer-songwriter there is much speculation about how autobiographical these songs are, and this could be about the end of the relationship Bill had recently with Joanna Newsom, but it could be about any relationship, and not just about one ending by a breaking up, but one ending in grief and loss. The urgency with which Bill sings the chorus shows a desperation to be rid of the good memories that torture him now.
The next verse introduces the metaphor of Bill being a horse, ridden by his memories, and struggling against them:
I flipped my forelock, I twitched my withers, I reared and bucked
I could not put my rider aground
And another cutting couplet:
I dreamed it was a dream that you were gone
I woke up feeling so ripped by reality
And at the end of this dream, which should be nice but isn't because of whatever has happened in the waking world, comes the dream of the perfect song; and the strings, as they say, kick in. It's astonishingly good, and I am in awe.
Another song with two parts is the final track on Side A, Too Many Birds. It cycles around the same four piano chords, with acoustic guitar and a steady drum beat, joined a little later by light organ touches. The observations on a crowd of blackbirds are good, but not exceptional .The extended metaphor of one lone bird to be our protagonist in the unfeeling world, but returning to the tree eventually is well done, and about 2:30 in the bird stuff is left behind and a violin solo comes in. Then around 3:10 something magical starts. Bill sings, quite quickly:
If you could...
If you could only...
And immediately you're drawn in, if...? if who...? if who could what? Only what?
There's a pause, and then each subsequent line is delivered at the beginning of the four-chord cycle.
If you could only stop...
If you could only stop your...
If you could only stop your heart...
And at this point you wonder where he's going with this. The pause after each line where he comes back to the same beginning each time gives you the time to think through what he could mean, who it could be addressed to. It starts as if he's asking someone to change their behaviour, but then he wants someone to stop their heart? As in die? It continues:
If you could only stop your heartbeat...
If you could only stop your heartbeat for...
If you could only stop your heartbeat for one heart...
Now I've listened to this track many, many times now. And I'm wondering why Bill has chosen not to build things up one word at a time here. I don't know if it's for the aesthetic of the song or scansion, but I do know that adding in 'one heart', in one go, on that repetition adds an undeniable emphasis. The song has gone from wanting someone to stop their heart, to beginning to reveal a reason, "for", and then saying, I think: for me. Could you stop your heartbeat for me? What would you do in the name of love? And then the final full line is revealed:
If you could only stop your heartbeat, for one heartbeat.
Which throws my earlier interpretation out, and seems more likely to be a plaintive wish for the ability to stop time, or that one could stop certain things occurring that happen too fast for you to change.
How this all fits with the bird metaphor at the start of the song isn't clear to me at the moment, but it's another beautiful piece of songwriting. So good I might even request it is played at my funeral.
And the album is full of material like this. Opener Jim Cain asks simple questions in the face of nature's indifference, and contains the line, "I used to be darker/Then I got lighter/Then I got dark again". Which again might be autobiographical, and doesn't look much written down. It must be in the delivery. At the end of Rococo Zephyr, which itself contains a wonderful female vocal contribution impersonating said zephyr, comes the line, "I used to be sorta blind/Now I can sorta see".
The B-side is more challenging, and darker. My Friend is the threatening number on the album:
Now I'm not saying we're cut from the same tree
But like two pieces of the gallows
The pillar and the beam
Like two pieces of the gallows
We share a common dream--
To destroy what will harm other men
And the delivery is certainly full of menace, as is All Thoughts Are Prey to Some Beast - a slightly surreal number imagining smaller birds as thoughts in a 'brain tree', attacked by eagles. But it ends redemptively, with the repeated line, "Sweet desires and soft thoughts/return to me". Whether this is a wish or a statement of fact is unclear though.
There follows a keyboard instrumental, then the near 10-minute Faith/Void. There's a lot of repetition in this song, and I think he's making a broader point about the enduring qualities of faith, or perhaps even about how religion works, but you'll get the gist of the song from these lyrics:
This is the end of faith, no more must I strive
To find my peace, to find my peace in a lie
It's time to put God away
(I put God away)
A downbeat ending, sure, but I think a realistic and fitting one. This is without a doubt one of the best albums I have ever heard.
You can hear Eid Ma Clack Shaw at Stereogum.