Bill Callahan had been making music for more than 20 years under the moniker Smog, and apparently decided it was time to come clean. His latest album, Woke on a Whaleheart, is credited to Bill Callahan. "I wanted to start from the ground up for this record. Strip away everything. Lay it all on the line. Give up everything I had worked for up until that point," says Callahan, via e-mail. "That was a thrill."
While Whaleheart is, like his last few albums, more direct, it's not especially austere. As he has for much of his career, Callahan surveys a wide expanse of Americana, from gospel blues ("The Wheel") and folk rock ("Sycamore") to aching piano ballads ("From the Rivers to the Ocean"). And largely, Callahan does what he does as he's always done it, which is to say, quite well.
Though he began in the late '80s by selling cassettes of his self-produced 4-track recordings, he was not lo-fi by choice. What many mistake for lo-fi is, in Callahan's case, a predilection toward the primal, as opposed to the primitive. Since signing to Drag City in 1991 he has worked solely in the studio.
The characters in his songs are often a downtrodden, desperate and deluded lot. Amidst their suffering, they cling to a scrap of hope, which they may or may not have invested wisely. Their misplaced devotions fall upon indifference; for example, the couch-bound live-in ex-boyfriend of "Your New Friend" who awaits a reversal in fortune. "People probably chase those who don't desire them in an effort to avoid admitting something honestly about themselves," Callahan says.
Reminiscent of the tone with which he treats the importunate unfortunates in his songs, Callahan regards our efforts to forestall our eventual demise with bemused sympathy.
"I think the earth is supposed to end. Because it is a living organism like humans. I will drive a car that runs on carrots, I will buy life jackets for polar bears, I will do anything I can to stop the end of the world -- but like stopping the end of your own life, I think it's impossible," Callahan notes. "We can attempt to delay both, in order to suck as much sweet nectar as we can out of this plane, but ultimately it will end."
He's no ray of sunshine -- he was Smog, after all -- but if there's wisdom to be found in a punch to the solar plexus, you know Callahan won't pull back.
Bill Callahan opening for Swell Season (featuring Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová). 7 p.m. Sun., Sept. 21. Byham Theater, 101 Sixth St., Downtown. $38-48. 412-456-6666 or www.pgharts.org