The longer Bill Callahan makes music, the more he seems to lose. That encroaching minimalism became strikingly apparent recently when the reclusive, enigmatic singer-songwriter (who once recorded behind the smokescreen of Smog) released extended dub versions of “Javelin Unlanding” and “Winter Road.” Both are tracks from his newest album, Dream River; both are fractured and restrung into pulsing, lonely echoes of their original selves. Compellingly, the originals are also pulsing, lonely echoes—not of earlier songs, but of Callahan’s own eroded refinement, and of his slow evolution into a ghost of his own voice.
Some ghosts are pale afterimages, and others are distilled essences. The latter is the case with Dream River. This is Callahan at his most elemental: When he cites both Marvin Gaye and whale-song in “The Sing,” he does so with an implicit positioning of himself between the two. And he owns it, his voice a cumulous billow, his sparse folk brushstrokes scraped away to reveal blank patches of canvas. “Small Plane” stretches a dreamy piloting tableau into something sacred, both in sound and sentiment; “Seagull” is punctuated with swells of antigravity that send its thrumming organ and bell-tone lead guitar spiraling upward. And then there’s Callahan’s threadbare-velvet baritone, which chants “slips away” as if the song were a plea for some spectral abduction.
As for the original, non-dub versions of “Javelin Unlanding” and “Winter Road,” they cover each of the album’s softly separated poles. “Javelin Unlanding” is as propulsive as Callahan gets these days, a playful meditation laced with Nick Drake-like flutes and bongos, spaghetti-Western twang, and cascades of folk-funk licks. Closing the album on a far more ethereal note, “Winter Road” evokes frost and stentorian sorrow as eerily as Nico’s solo work with John Cale. But Callahan slashes it with bone-dry wit and a left-field metaphor, one that might as well be aimed at the mirror: “A Donald Sutherland interview comes on the truck radio.” As a portrayal of Bill Callahan by Bill Callahan, Dream River doesn’t chew an inch of scenery; instead it dwells in knowing glances and haunted whispers.