Whatever reason Bill Callahan may have for ditching Smog, the moniker he’d performed under for nearly two decades, it was a good move–just as wise as jettisoning the parenthesis he’d attached after briefly billing himself as (Smog) in the late ’90s. (New music groups, take note: Avoid punctuation in band names at all costs.)
Woke on a Whaleheart, Callahan’s 13th album and his first under his given name, is a cozy affair with an old-timey feel. That its creator is now plain old Bill Callahan seems fitting. Callahan established himself with home recordings that he spun like cocoons in a flat, deep voice that told enigmatic tales of woe. After a string of moves from city to city, he’s currently residing in Austin, Texas, slowly allowing rays of hope to penetrate his songs’ often troubled landscapes.
Redemption runs through Woke on a Whaleheart like a golden thread. On the album’s gorgeous opening track, “From the Rivers to the Ocean,” Callahan repeatedly calls, “Have faith in wordless knowledge,” assuring us to dive neck-deep in the muck. It’s never quite clear just what we need to be forgiven for other than being human. “The wagon rolls like an old millstone / Driving bad deeds six feet deep,” he sings on “The Wheel,” before adding his desire to make his home “inside a turning wheel bound for good.” It’s godless gospel.
The shamelessly pretty arrangements of Neil Michael Hagerty (formerly of Royal Trux) flesh out Callahan’s meandering rivers of lyrics with tinkling piano and soothing violins, imparting a glossy studio sheen to songs whose sing-and-repeat structure is rooted equally in the Original Carter Family, Pete Seeger and the Rolling Stones. The result is like the seat of an old wooden chair whose smoothness comes from sheer decades of use and the refusal of what is timeworn to become weary.
Callahan’s vocal delivery and dark sensibility dispel any danger of all this hopefulness coming off as cloying. His voice sounds like a mistake and is as heavy as a cast-iron skillet. When Callahan sang backing vocals on girlfriend Joanna Newsom’s highly curlicued 2006 album Ys, the effect of his leaden pipes amidst the swooning strings was perfectly disarming, serving a well-needed jolt to the lushness of the musical proceedings. Newsom does not return the favor with a guest appearance on Woke on a Whaleheart, though Deani Pugh-Flemmings’ well-placed gospel backing vocals carry a churchy tinge.
Nine songs long, Woke on a Whaleheart is perhaps too short, but it’s lavishly short, not punk-rock short, leaving the listener yearning for more. The best solution is to simply play it twice in a row.