Woke on a Whaleheart
fter almost 20 years and more than a dozen albums as Smog—and for a brief parenthetical period as (Smog)—it’s a bit of an anticlimax to find Bill Callahan finally releasing an album under his own name. After all, Callahan started as a one-man band, a key soldier in the lo-fi revolution; but then, he got restless. Like a wandering minstrel of old, Callahan now flits from town to town, playing his plaintive, laconic, dry-witted songs topped with his instantly identifiable, deeply drawled vocals, laying them to tape with the locals, and then ambling on before things get a bit too comfortable. Each album has different feels and sensibilities, but even the most individualistic of his collaborators—a list that includes Jim O’Rourke, John McEntire, and Joanna Newsom, among many others—were neatly folded into Callahan’s self-obsessed little world.
Callahan’s partner in crime this time out is fellow Drag City mainstay Neil Michael Hagerty. Unfortunately, Hagerty doesn’t prove to be as sympathetic a partner for Callahan as one would have hoped. It isn’t that Hagerty entirely dominates the album—far from it, in fact, as Hagerty doesn’t even actually play. Through his role as arranger and co-producer, however, Hagerty’s fingerprints are smudged all over this album regardless, leaving Callahan to sound a bit too much like a guest on his own album.
Lest you think Woke on a Whaleheart sounds like a Royal Trux album, rest assured that the album is still firmly grounded in the acoustic-based, singer-songwriter style of much of Callahan’s work, and his lyrics and vocals are as sharp as ever. No, it’s the little Haggertyisms present here that sound so out of place—that mix with the guitars and drums a bit too far in the forefront; those 70s classic rock-style backing singers that pop up at the worst possible time (most memorably on the otherwise wonderful “Sycamore” and the dynamic “Footprints”); that muddy, hazy mix that sounds like the entire record is being played through a jar of molasses. It’s all just a bit off, and it’s all the more frustrating because you can hear Callahan’s musical personality buried beneath it all. Given a chance to breathe, these songs might have flourished, especially the rolling rhythm of the aforementioned “Sycamore,” the almost-anthemic opener “From Rivers to the Ocean,” and the twangy, jumpy closer “A Man Needs a Woman or a Man to Be a Man.” As it is, they just sound like blown opportunities.
While I’ll stop short of saying that Hagerty ruined this record, I can definitively say that I’d love to hear what it would have sounded like before he got his hands on it. This is all especially tough to fathom because Callahan’s last Smog album, 2005’s A River Ain’t Too Much to Love, was as direct and comfortable in his own skin as he’s sounded in his entire career. It’s a bittersweet irony that the first album under Callahan’s own name sees him relinquishing control of the wheel for the very first time, and his chosen driver unceremoniously runs the car into the curb over and over again.