Dreams, water, flight, the end of the world . . . Bill Callahan’s work doesn’t so much engage these themes directly as it teases them out, with hints and references strewn through lyrics like abstract bread crumbs.
Indeed, he’s said his latest album, “Dream River,” released last month, plays as a series of dreams or daydreams or fantasies bookended by the opening and closing tunes — but that he didn’t actually plan it out as such.
“I’m fascinated by dreams. We can sort of explain what’s happening, but there’s still bits of mystery to them and what’s controlling all these stories,” Callahan, who has taken nutritional supplements to help him remember his dreams, says in a telephone interview from the road. He speaks slowly and deliberately, hitting upon a thought and following it through a twist and turn or two. “I think, in a way, fantasies are the glue of our society. I just think that dreams aren’t that far from our reality, because all thought is like a muted fantasy. You’re trying to be realistic, but if you’re thinking of how something is going to go in the future, then that’s a fantasy.”
The new record’s eight songs flow together bathed in a meditative hue, with pedal steel guitar, violin, flute, and understated percussion lending colors that swirl around Callahan’s mildly off-kilter baritone. He sings in a conversational, almost offhand style, so when he holds onto a note and stretches it for several measures it feels like an event.
“Dream River,” which has generated some of the best reviews of Callahan’s career, is a slow-burn procession of little gems that feel like they have mysteries buried in their shadowy crags. In “Small Plane,” a song he says came to him in a dream, aviation stands in as metaphor for a relationship. (“I like it when I take the controls from you, and when you take the controls from me,” he sings. “I really am a lucky man, flying this small plane.”) In the penultimate song, “Seagull,” Callahan likens himself to the titular bird, and either does or does not circle back to the hotel bar described in the album’s opening track.
It’s just his fourth album under his own name, after spending 17 years crafting sometimes low-fi, often dour four-track essays as the entity Smog. (A cassette tape loop of the Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women” provides the musical backing for one Smog favorite.)
This shift in presentation accompanied a growing emphasis on singing and guitar playing by a songwriter who previously considered his most important work to be done with pen on paper. The last full-length release under the Smog name, “A River Ain’t Too Much to Love” was a transition to a musical identity that could be better understood in the tradition of singer-songwriters than basement tape-tinkerers.
“I really wanted that record to exist as a solo thing,” he says of that 2005 release, “so that’s why I started fingerpicking instead of strumming, and I think that’s a whole different seat for your voice to sit in. When you’re strumming, the voice and guitar don’t really go together, they are like a layer cake. With fingerpicking, the voice is put into the center and the guitar goes around the middle, so the singing becomes the nucleus of the sound.”
When his tastes call for horns and string players, as they have on previous solo efforts, Callahan will open his creative process to account for other voices. But it’s not easy for him to share artistic control. “I’m really good at collaborating if it’s on something I don’t know how to do, such as writing out an arrangement for a string section. If it’s something I can do myself, then I usually can’t let someone else do it,” he says.
Since relocating from Chicago to Austin, Texas, several years ago, he’s taken to playing with a circle of musicians based in his new home who are simpatico with his musical vision. For his show at the Sinclair on Saturday, he’ll be joined by Jaime Zuverza on bass, drummer Adam Jones, and Matt Kinsey on guitar. He describes his band as “musicians who do things that I couldn’t possibly do myself.”
The new record marked a change in approach from his previous effort, “Apocalypse.” For that album, he says, he logged obsessive, 16-hour days for a couple months and saw his personal hygiene deteriorate. To make “Dream River,” it took fewer than two weeks worth of more methodically planned windows of work. “It’s fun to just totally lose yourself in a project if you want to,” he says, “but then I realized it’s not necessary.”
In the past, Callahan has suggested that his decision to release albums under his own name could attract listeners who were turned off by Smog. While some artists’ work feels like an ongoing dialogue with their audience, Callahan says he’s not sure exactly who is out there listening.
“I can’t really imagine who is listening and what sort of relationship they have to the music. I really don’t know. I guess when I’m writing a record I start from scratch as if it’s my first record. I think maybe that’s the way people listen to them also.”