What is Leonard Cohen overrated
"You have beautiful lamps here!", Says the singer Bill Callahan, as he looks from the stage into the wine-red circle of the Art Deco theater, the Berlin Admiralspalast, which is fully occupied on all balconies: "Beautiful lamps. Look out like jelly sealed in cellophane. " Nice welcome, you can literally hear the rattling in the audience's brains while Callahan tunes the hiking guitar as if he wanted to briefly check the spark plugs. "Oh yes," he says, "Jelly in foil, that was my nickname in high school." Then comes the song.
And before someone asks: Yes, you have to know him, absolutely. Even if Callahan's head, accurately gray-haired and boyish, could hardly be guessed in the pub quiz, and although one would like to steal his name to give it to a funny cattle thief in a children's cowboy book. But Callahan is not just a modern classic, one of the most enduring characters of the nineties underground pop scene in the USA, which is driven by crazy ideas and creative furor. He also had a triumphant year 2019 after a long break. With a major US and European tour and a record that is one of the best that he has achieved in a slightly sloppy music career in around 30 years.
"A journalist wrote that their music was terrifying and irresistible. Is that right?", He was asked by a presenter in 2002 when he appeared in the program of the "Chicago Morning News" at seven in the morning. "Hmm ..." Callahan mumbles, pale, not just around the face. "Just scary, actually." Then there is a song that explains everything and nothing. "River Guard", about a lifeguard who supervises prisoners while swimming in the river and who has fundamental doubts about human freedom.
Of course, Callahan - 53, a native of Maryland on the east coast, singer, songwriter and one-man show - is a poster boy of the independent music community that is loyal to the line. You couldn't have put it together more beautifully: the creaky melancholic who reacts laconically and often extra-stuffy to niceties and public consumption. Good looking but unfashionable. Present but unapproachable. All the beautiful pairs of opposites of the well-tolerated subversive. One who lights up the old, great pop genetics (Leonard Cohen, Nick Drake, Johnny Cash) without sounding remotely like a mannerist.
Countless the Netflix and Amazon emissaries who want to buy his songs for their credits
The fact that Callahan was privately in a relationship with two of the most magnificent musicians of the present, Joanna Newsom and Chan Marshall alias Cat Power, is artistically insignificant, but in the end such gossip remains positive. In the headquarters of the Drag City label in Chicago, which has been publishing its records since 1992, a separate waiting room probably had to be set up long ago, just for all the Netflix and Amazon emissaries who want to buy Callahan songs for their credits.
As he is on stage at the only Germany concert in the Admiralspalast, one could also mistake him for one of the many interchangeable murmurs who recently had such a startling success with the romantically prone audience. Callahan strapped the guitar hillbilly to her chest. He is wearing the pale colored checked shirt that you know from many of his forest walk photos. A small band is there, three sunken guys on electric guitar, bass and drums. But then it comes, after a few introductory chords. The sacred thing. The factor. The essentially completely uncool, discourse-remote killing argument for the fact that Bill Callahan is such a solitaire. That you sometimes drop very valuable objects when your music suddenly starts playing somewhere because you have to listen. The reason is, well: his voice.
From a purely technical point of view, Callahan's singing voice is a baritone, that is, the middle thing between high and low. A frequency that penetrates any kind of music or noise that always finds its way, like the handsaw of an existential carpenter. She is bottomlessly sad, dry, disillusioned - but nevertheless there is always a strange paternal consolation in her: Don't worry, I'm the poet here, and as long as I sing, everything can't be that bad. The voice doesn't sound like an instrument, its substance is the words, in deep black serif font: "Met a woman in a bar / I told her I was hard to get to know / and near impossible to forget." Or: "I've got the woman of my dreams / And an imitation Eames." Contact problems, happiness in life, interior design. As promised, the existential issues.
Callahan's voice has remained constant for decades, while the guy it's in has shed its skin many times. In Chicago in the late eighties he began as an unkempt avant-garde with a cassette recorder and junk instruments, called himself smog. Later added parenthesis brackets to the project name to show how undesirable any association between song lyrics and artist identity was. Callahan wanted the seemingly impossible: an intimate music that did not derive its meaning from the fact that it was understood as the confessional expression of its author. Of course, it was precisely because of this that interest in his person grew even more.
"Dress Sexy At My Funeral", "Butterflies Drowned In Wine" or "Prince Alone In The Studio" is what he called the smog songs, which over the years have become more melodic, more translucent and even more danceable for death-defying feet.
The twelfth album was released in 2007 under his real name. The days when he only conducted interviews via fax were probably over. "Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest", the already mentioned record from 2019, is now a new high point of this development - and belongs to the most enigmatic, moving, eloquent and in the end also deeply consoling what it is in the past few years of singer-songwriter music.
This time you have to dig deep into the biography to explain the background. In 2014 Callahan married the photographer and director Hanly Banks, who had previously made a documentary about him. Their son was born a year later. His first child, at the age of 48. As a rule, nothing more nasty can happen to the audience than (especially male) musicians singing about the happiness of their parents. Callahan has inspired 19 relatively short, succinct songs in which thoughts about everyday family life, the value and the brutal fragility of life meet huge images of nature, a bit of mythological-philosophical bimbam and literally great lust after almost five years Baby break finally to feel the verses flow again.
Nothing is nicely polished on "Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest". The music sounds as if a squat jazz quartet is trying with all control to play a gentle country record, and above it hovers the voice, the famous voice. Like the voiceover in a documentary about family life in the dark, undeveloped mountains: "We turn darkness into morning / We turn belief into evening." Even Werner Herzog couldn't say it more disturbingly idyllic.
In the concert Callahan, the newly crowned, great chief pastoral poet of indie rock, concentrates on the fantastic songs of his current phase of knowledge. Only at the end there is a short reminder, a small greeting to the wild past, when the band finally sends the theater audience home with a long, cacophonic roar. "The weather in Berlin will clear up as soon as we leave the country," Callahan had predicted in an announcement earlier, proven puzzling. "But clarity is overrated anyway." You shouldn't forget it, even if you listen to your new record to fall asleep.
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