There’s that age old question every person hears in their English class from high school through college: “Do we really think that the meaning we find in these books was actually meant by the writers that wrote them or are we just scrambling to make them seem relevant?” You’ll hear a lot of variations on that statement, but that’s basically it. We stake so much in literature, lifestyle and music that the norm has become hyperbole in how we assume meaning down to the very arrangement of words in sentences in service of a greater, elusive whole. It’s a sentiment that will always have backlash, but that romanticism for hidden genius stems from the desperate hope in all of us that everything in our lives happens for a reason.
The problem I have with Bill Callahan’s fourth album, Apocalypse, is the same I had with R.E.M.’s latest release, Collapse Into Now. As I inspect Callahan’s words and the pastiche that surrounds them, I wonder if the things he’s saying actually mean anything to anyone besides Bill Callahan. He speaks of the world coming to an end and derides America before bringing it back into his good graces with really no clear structure or purpose. Apocalypse is very flimsy as a result of this, and, the more I look into it, the more I see it as a record of hollow rhetoric as opposed to anything remotely substantive.
Take “America!” for example. In it, Callahan repeats his country’s name in a mocking tone, never changing the three notes he sings in each verse as he describes an apparent longing for his country while he’s traveling overseas. “I watched David Letterman / In Australia,” he sings, maintaining that mocking tone. In the song, he rattles off American artists, presumptively his idols in the context of giving them military names like Captain Kristofferson and Sergeant Cash. “What an army!” he rejoices in that unwaveringly derisive tone. But then the song stops and Callahan switches to his grave deep voice. “Never served my country,” he intones. Then the song picks up again as if the deviation never happened.
Pretty funny joke of a song, right? But… is it a joke? At one point Callahan has clear respect for his idols by assembling them in an army, but then ridicules them by making it clear that he’s not concerned with the military. The drop-off that occurs in the song could actually be effective in conveying a serious mood to counteract his belief in the silliness of militarism but doing so produces a paradox in which he inevitably dismisses his idols. Does Bill Callahan not actually like Johnny Cash or Kris Kristofferson? Does he not like that you can watch David Letterman in Australia? Because based on that fucking annoying tone he takes throughout most of “America!”, you’d think he hated America, but actually liked it in the most incongruous and parabolic way possible.
So clearly it’s a song fraught with contradiction, which would be fine if it were organized. As I’ve just shown, there is no real message in “America!” More likely Bill Callahan had a couple contradicting ideas that touched upon similar subjects and put them all together on one track. So as a piece of music to be analyzed, it’s useless, because it has no mission statement despite sounding like it has the confidence of several. So, though I appreciate the ambition, the song is ultimately a total failure. It’s meaningless and sung like a Jim Gaffigan joke, and I hardly think that was Bill Callahan’s intention.
But man does the song sound like it means something. Honestly, if you didn’t feel like being a grumpy music skeptic, you could listen to all of Apocalypse and be sated by its hushed arrangements and Callahan’s honest to God gift for just saying words. You could sit back and assume that you were listening to an album with meaning, and that’s mostly why I didn’t give it such a low rating. For however empty the album’s lyrics prove to be, Callahan gives one Hell of a performance. His voice is deep and conversational and can tell a very engaging story, even if it turns out to be a mind numbing dead end. When he makes the sound of a flare gun in “Universal Acclaim” at the point of its use in the story, you couldn’t ask for a better musical accompaniment, and Callahan comes off as redoubtably endearing as a result. He’s so good at storytelling it’s a shame so much of Apocalypse is so deceptive.
However, the pointlessness of the album becomes too overwhelming. Its “mission statement” comes barreling through on second to last track, “Free’s”. “Is this what it means to be free?” Callahan asks in his amiable tenor. “Or is this what it means to be owned by the free?” Well, Bill, I’d say it would be pretty tough to confuse those two, so I’d chalk it up to words that sound profound because they’re opposites. “And the free / They belong to me,” he later sings, in a last attempt to breach some kind of coherency. He fails, but you wouldn’t know it based on the song’s beautiful aural accompaniment.
This speaks nothing of the nine-minute closing track and the other moot commentaries of America, an apocalypse and endless piles of bullshit. In “Riding for the Feeling”, Callahan even replaces the first and last words of the song’s title indiscriminately, as if acknowledging that his words are nothing more than placeholders. And yet, if you’re not careful, Apocalypse can be the most poignant turd you ever heard. It’s undoubtedly pleasant, but any scrutiny will indicate that it’s a gilded record, buoyed by the nebulous words of a convincing vocalist. There are some great moments on Apocalypse, but, shaken of its pretenses, it’s little more than a boring spoken word album. And I want to parse meaning from it about as much as I want to read The Catcher in the Rye for the seventy-fifth time.