I used to be darker, then I got lighter, then I got darker again," sings Bill Callahan on "Jim Cain," the first track on his 13th album, Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle. A shimmery, downcast rumination with strings right out of a lost Jimmy Webb hit, the song is ostensibly about author and fellow Maryland native James M. Cain, who wrote the noir landmarks Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice but who died alcoholic and unknown.
It's hard to hear those lines and not think of Callahan's own rocky career, and the parallels must be slyly intentional. With an eye for such tragic ironies as Cain's ignoble fate, Callahan has written toward various shades of darkness and light, from pitch black to only slightly dim.
As always, it's difficult to determine just where Eagle falls on that spectrum. Some have alleged that these nine songs document his break-up with folk singer Joanna Newsom, although Callahan is far too slippery to write so directly. Instead, he dons a variety of guises and inhabits a procession of voices, including Cain but mostly more anonymous characters with only a passing resemblance to himself.
His richly stoical voice evokes the gnaw of regret, failing faith, and mortal fear, yet he infuses his words with a wry, occasionally sardonic humor: "I used to be sorta blind, now I can sorta see," Callahan sings on "Rococo Zephyr," and those two qualifying sortas sting like a self-deprecating punch line.
Eagle is, technically, only the second Bill Callahan album. He first used his Christian name on 2007's lackluster Woke Up on a Whaleheart, after years of recording under a pseudonym. In the late 1980s, Callahan began making very lo-fi, mostly instrumental recordings as Smog, and the stage name suggested a nebulous and treacherous aspect to his music, as if there were no boundaries to the darkness he would eventually sing about.
But the primitive sound quality was not so much an aesthetic choice as a byproduct of limited circumstances: When he signed to Drag City, his sound improved as his popularity and budget increased, revealing driving ambitions. On such albums as The Doctor Came at Dawn in 1996 and Dongs of Sevotion in 2000, he married his songwriterly compositions and grim observations to subdued electric folk-rock that seemed to grow out of '80s and '90s underground rock.
In 2001, he adjusted his pseudonym slightly, changing Smog to (Smog), which both bracketed and absented him from his music. The punctuation lasted only two albums before it was dropped; two albums after that, Callahan retired Smog altogether and began using his own name. That might suggest that he has finally lowered the scrim between himself and his audience, but he remains as elusive as ever on Eagle, doling out revelations and admission very carefully.
"Last night I thought I felt your touch, gentle and warm," he sings on "Eid Ma Clack Shaw," adding, "The hair stood on my arm." It sounds like a straightforward confession, especially with the physical details, but as the song progresses, Callahan takes on the persona of a horse that "couldn't shake my rider down."
The shift in nomenclature parallels a gradual evolution toward a folksier sound that might seem to place Callahan squarely in the Americana movement, and yet he is a man apart, with no real interest in Neil Young-derived classic rock (like Jason Molina) or in a history-book vision of America (like Jay Farrar). He has ambitions far beyond his lo-fi beginnings, and he has little in common with freak folkies like Devendra Banhart. Callahan's closest peers might be Will Oldham (of Palace and Bonnie "Prince" Billy fame), whose music similarly maps out good and evil, and Mark Kozelek (formerly of Red House Painters and currently of Sun Kil Moon), who likewise sings in a variety of voices ranging from the notorious to the unknown.
Recorded in Plano, Texas, a suburb of Dallas, Eagle incorporates numerous '70s country elements, most notably the airy sound courtesy of producer John Congleton and the dramatic string arrangements by Brian Beattie. The album begins relatively traditionally, with the melodically direct "Jim Cain" and the catchy "Eid Ma Clack Shaw," but it grows odder and itchier as it proceeds. After a simple intro picked on a pair of acoustic guitars, "My Friend" repeatedly pledges love and fidelity, but the music grows so tightly wound that darker currents become visible. It's one of Callahan's prickliest performances.
By the penultimate "Invocation to Ratiocination," he seems to have fallen away altogether. The song is nearly three minutes of wordless female vocalizing over ambient cricket noises, but the title is telling: It's a respite before the 10-minute finale "Faith/Void," which ponders God, death, and inner peace. "It's time to put God away," Callahan sings repeatedly, not shaking his fist at the heavens but arguing calmly for "the end of faith" as the guitars spiral like quiet fireworks.
It's a fitting culmination to an album that questions faith — in God, in other people, in music — with every note, and yet it's that persistent uncertainty that makes Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle Callahan's best album in years, possibly ever.