Bill Callahan - Woke on a Whaleheart

with Woke on a Whaleheart we have something else – Bill having fun and sounding like he might just be in love.



Bill Callahan – Woke on a Whaleheart


After thirteen years or so of recording under the moniker of Smog, Bill Callahan has finally recorded an album under his own name. And this isn't the only change either – Bill has actually recorded an album that could be described as upbeat. Well, almost.


For those not aware of the Smog canon, Callahan's songs tend towards the lugubrious. At times they are downright miserable. His songs are usually slow-paced and instrumentally sparse. Indeed, the spirits are only ever raised due to Callahan's deadpan humour and mordant wit. Callahan is a good lyricist and he knows how to use his deep voice to good effect. His lyrics often carry the melody and it tends to take a few listens to his albums before you really begin to appreciate them. But with Woke on a Whaleheart we have something else – Bill having fun and sounding like he might just be in love.


Last I heard he was knocking about with Joanna Newsom, so maybe this has something to do with it. Who knows? Album opener From the Rivers to the Ocean still sounds like typical Smog territory. With piano carrying the melody, and backed by drums and guitar, Callahan sings a languid love song. Rather like a river it meanders happily along for six and a half minutes, deciding along the way that we should "have faith in wordless knowledge". When it comes to love you've just got to go with the flow.


Footprints is a rather more insistent number whereas Diamond Dancer is a grinding rock song of sorts. The latter was chosen as the single and is (as is so often the way) probably the worst song on the album. It's not that it's bad – the song is basic and repetitious and backed by a violin – but it hardly showcases Callahan at his best. Sycamore, the next track, does. It opens with beautiful chiming guitars and gentle drumming. It's a wonderful song and one with a fair amount of humour: "Christian, if you see your poppa / Tell him I love him / He taught me to love in the wild and fight in the gym." As the song heads towards the close it is embellished with some great backing vocals from Deani Pugh-Flemmings.


The Wheel is a kind of country song with Callahan muttering the lyrics before singing them properly. There's also background studio noises and laughing at various points. Bill having fun? Well, you wouldn't know it from his singing but it is still a good song to tap your foot to. Honeymoon Child is remarkably soppy – the child of the title being loved and adored by everyone. Although with this being a Smog song the ending is ambiguous: "Mr Bones from town said he saw you the other day / Said you'd changed but he wouldn't say how."


Day is an absolute corker. It's a fun, foot stomping, honky-tonk number that urges people to strive towards the light despite the apparent darkness that surrounds them. Somehow he manages to explain how to do this my talking about monkeys doing piggish things whilst also behaving like potatoes. Night, meanwhile, is a brief and gentle song that opens with just Bill and a piano. Eventually it opens up with the addition of violin, guitar and percussion. But it remains fragile all the while; unlike album closer A Man Needs a Woman or a Man to Be a Man. This is another song that finds Callahan in top form. It's another love song but (as the title suggests) one with a fair amount of humour at its core. It's a gently rollicking song with an easy charm and a knowing wink.


So Woke on a Whaleheart is a pretty upbeat album. For Bill Callahan anyway. It's produced by Neil Michael Hegerty of Royal Trux fame but if I didn't know any better I would have guessed that David Berman of the Silver Jews produced it. The album has a distinctly 'good ol' boy' feel at times and, as with most 'Smog' albums, can't be recommended highly enough. Except for the cover, that is, which I think is possibly the worst one I've ever seen.


Words: Chris Dawson