My Top 20 Songs of 2011 #20: Bill Callahan – ‘Baby’s Breath’

It starts with an intake of breath and it doesn’t get much louder. This is not the Bill Callahan of his previous solo albums. It’s certainly not the Bill Callahan of 2009’s lush and warm “Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle”. This is sparse, pared-down and idiosyncratic. It speeds up and slows down. It descends into distortion. It sounds half-formed. It sounds broken. Which is almost certainly the point. Callahan has built a career on focusing in on the smallest of gestures – an intake of breath, a sign, a stare – which can be just as affecting and devastating as any shout, scream or thrown plate.

If Joanna Newsom’s ‘Have One On Me’ tracked her break-up with Callahan through mellifluous sounds and poetic imagery, Callahan conjures up the same sense of regret and loss through something akin to stoic silence. It’s tempting to portray these as typical feminine and masculine responses to a break-up: on the one side the loquacious and on the other side the taciturn, but with Callahan it’s never that simple. Callahan is a brilliant lyricist, but he conjures up the beautiful (“There grows a weed, looks like a flower/Looks like baby’s breath on a mirror”) and the devastating (“It was agreed, it was agreed/It was me tearing out the baby’s breath”) with masterful simplicity, as opposed to anything showy. It’s something from which a lot of other lyricists could learn (I’m looking at you, Alex “I etched a face of a stopwatch on the back of a raindrop” Turner).

This is a song that I am repeatedly drawn in by and to which I keep returning. It’s disconcerting, weird, melancholy – it’s everything that I’ve learned to love about Bill Callahan over the years. He’s not going to make it easy for us, but if he keeps things as beguiling as this I’ll keep coming along for the ride.

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