What happened to the introspective rock dude? It seems strange that there should be a shortage of them. Maybe it’s even stranger to complain about it. After all, hasn’t this type long dominated the indie scene? And aren’t Drake and Kanye West ruminating enough for everybody right now? And yet it’s disappointing how little soul searching man bands are up for these days. The Arctic Monkeys, first heralded in large part for their thoughtful lyrics, just broke into the top 10 with a new album more focused on macho riffage. Vampire Weekend, who hit number one (again) earlier this year, were never ones to brood. And Justin Vernon of Bon Iver is now serving heaping scoops of doggerel (like “sexing all your parliament”) with Volcano Choir.
John Mayer’s one of the few guys rooting around in his feelings as a project, but what he turns up on his recent album reveals an acute case of “nice guy” syndrome. Paradise Valley is gentle, inviting, even poetic—until it becomes petulant and entitled, as on “Dear Marie,” where a former teen flame is informed, with exquisitely sensitive condescension, “I got my dream—but you got family.”
The real white knights have only just arrived, and no, you shouldn’t actually think of them that way. Last week Bill Callahan (formerly known as Smog) released Dream River, the fourth album under his own name. This week Deer Tick delivered their fifth one, Negativity. Callahan and Deer Tick’s singer John McCauley have a few things in common: A love—or at least a fondness for evoking—Americana; a precision-tuned sense of self-awareness; and a profound lack of concern for what other people might think of as cheesy—like unleashing flute and saxophone solos, or lines like “all I want to do is make love to you” and “a baby cries, and an old man dies.”
Deer Tick are responsible for that cries-dies bit, and also the superb “Just Friends,” a cushy, “Piano Man”-like heartbreaker in which a “couple of gems swept into the dustbin” get to work while people around them “celebrate the end of the work week” and watch “dreams dance to death in their glass.” It’s a bold (possibly bald) statement from a band that wants nothing less than to make an honest monster ballad about two barbacks who aren’t sure they should sleep together. The Hold Steady could write a song about this song.
John McCauley’s more of a dirtball than a cheeseball. He just doesn’t have the luxury of rock gods past to mix up blues, booze and existential laments on behalf of everyday folks without the risk of sounding like he doesn’t really mean it. It helps that he fronts the best bar band in the country. (All apologies to the Hold Steady.) And it’s an even bigger help that he sings like Axl Rose, in a voice that actually sounds somewhat painful to use. His other obvious forebear would be Kurt Cobain: the groups covers Nirvana live, as Deervana, and Negativity’s “Pot of Gold” climaxes with ragged noise Cobain could’ve destroyed a drum set to.
McCauley struggles with his demons, and demon of openly struggling with your demons. “The Curtain” slips and slides from rollicking to slinky, with the singer one moment rasping “I can swear I’m in control/I could make a judge convinced/but I know my spirit quit,” and another singing, “the soundmen are all gone/the curtain still remains/hides the puppeteer pulling all my strings.” This meta trap is familiar. But McCauley actually sounds liberated by the mere struggle to extricate himself, in using every tool at his disposal from showy psychodrama to Billy Joel-style yarn-spinning.
Bill Callahan deals only in yarn-spinning, and maybe a little bit of fable-making. At 47, he’s got a couple decades on John McCauley, and a sound more evocative of nirvana than Nirvana—an elevated combination of strumming, flute, smoldering guitar solos and his higher power of a baritone. But transcendence for him also resides in the struggle, the soft breakings-away from what’s known and what seems possible. Negativity interrogates the barfly life, and (presumably) sounds damn good coming out of a jukebox. Dream River scrutinizes new age philosophizing, and sounds a little like a guided meditation.
Callahan’s sense of irony and humor is so deeply embedded in his poetic lyrics and voice-of-god vocals that every line opens up as you hear it. At times you realize he’s just playing in the sandbox: “Mountains don’t need my accolades,” he allows in “Spring,” before cracking a joke at the expense of every bad poet partial to seasonal metaphors: “Spring looks bad anyway/like death warmed over.”
Of course, a sandbox must always represent the larger world. For Callahan, massive significance blooms from observed details, as if it can’t be helped. That same song, “Spring,” starts this way: “The wind is pushing the clouds along, out of sight/a power is putting them away/a power that moves things neurotically/like a widow with a rosary.” Sleep, another heavy-duty poet’s metaphor, is a motif. “You look like worldwide armageddon/while you slept,” he sings in “Javelin Unlanding.” “You look so peaceful/you scare me/don’t die just yet, and leave me/alone, alone, alone on this journey ‘round the sun.”
But sleep doesn’t have to mean death. It can mean a trance; a trap. One that an introspective dude might well find himself in if he’s not careful. Bill Callahan, however, is very careful, and Dream River his best effort to stay awake—and to keep us alert with him.