Comparing Bill Callahan to a tree may sound like the stuff of bad poetry (or a desperate angle for a review), but considering his sturdy presence and the vertical, blossoming path of his career (from lo-fi roots to broader efforts), the image comes together too easily to ignore. Woody-voiced and perpetually unassuming, he has cast a strikingly arboreal figure in the last 19 years, shedding songs with the even crackle of his flat but hearty drawl. It’s fitting, then, that Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle would be so pastorally inclined, with its lyrical preoccupations on birds and the places they nest, a motif that carves out a cozy niche for its small but warmly accomplished songs.
This is Callahan’s second post-Smog release, and like many one-man bands who’ve shed invented names for given ones, the differences are largely arbitrary. The lyrics are still unwittingly complex, the music retains a smoky simplicity, sometimes heavy on darkly charging cello, and Callahan is still on Drag City, his home since 1992’s Forgotten Foundation. As always, what Callahan is saying is worth paying attention to, as quietly delivered as it may be, not only for the meaning of his words, but for their effortless beauty. “You fly all night/To sleep on stones/The heartless rest that in the morn will be gone,” he sings on “Too Many Birds,” one of many perfect lines on an album full of them.
Although Callahan doesn’t change much about his sound, the results are nominally steady and contain some fun if not revolutionary tricks. There’s an almost cocky assurance on a song like “Eid Ma Clack Shaw,” which shows that while his lyrics are his strong point they’re not the only thing he can do better than well. The song takes the age-old rock legend of a song written out of a dream and turns it on its head, working a chorus of nonsense lyrics that shows Callahan can push a melody without any help from the dictionary. “The Wind and the Dove” starts off with a slithery Arabian feel that teases for a moment before falling back into a more familiar composition. Consistently literate and full of the comfortable resonance of his unique voice, Eagle once again proves Callahan to be as ageless as the forest.