Whether recording under his own name or as Smog, Bill Callahan has always been enigmatic, a cowboy philosopher with a booming tenor that could make almost anything sound important. His new project finds him as dreamy as he’s ever been, but in the sense that dreams can be muddled, illogical, and kind of boring to hear about.
Have Fun with God, a collection of dub remixes of songs from last year’s Dream River, is at first an intriguing proposition. A stunning space-country ode to Love And What It All Means, Dream River has the kind of conceptual and sonic depth that could lend itself well to reinterpretation. It creates whole worlds out of a woodblock, some flutes, and a lone murmuring guitar, making Callahan’s talks of romantic epiphany sound like they’re coming from a confessional booth in the ionosphere. Problem is, it’s just not ideal fodder for dub. There’s barely a groove to speak of, and like all Callahan albums, Dream River’s personality comes from the richness of his storytelling and his rumbling, Sam Elliott-fucked-an-angel pipes. When you crank the reverb, delete about every other lyric, and sacrifice the spotlight to the bass and drums, it sounds less like remixing and more like vandalism.
Have Fun with God is clearly a lark. It’s not being presented as some profound reinterpretation that’s going to deepen our consciousness (“Dub is a ghost, a duppy. A duppy of a childhood guppy,” reads the album’s press release). It’s not meant to be taken so seriously. But that’s just it. I don’t want a lark from this guy. Bill Callahan albums are go-tos for profundity, for mystery, for connection. This little throwaway session is a reminder that he’s just a dude, and while that’s of course okay, the mystique is sorely missed here.
Have Fun with God does have its moments, especially “Summer Dub,” which improves on the original, “Summer Painter,” by jettisoning an overcooked narrative in favor of some twisted-up percussion and a thrillingly slow crescendo. And overall, the album inspires a deeper appreciation of its source material’s beautiful bones, illuminating elements that were hiding in plain sight, like the pretty Fender Rhodes licks on “Ride My Dub.” If the album ultimately fails, it’s because it diminishes the two main reasons to listen to Callahan: his voice and his words. Compared to Dream River, Have Fun with God sounds like a featureless expanse of echoing congas, with the artist occasionally rising from the depths to sing something that doesn’t make sense. If that sounds good to you, I dub thee “a person who is high right now.”