The best way to describe Bill Callahan’s fifth album is to call it sparse. And not just sparse in a two-bit adjective way, I mean f
, as in the majority of The Doctor Came At Dawn
is desolate, depressing, stark, and almost uncomfortably emotional. Callahan, again under the name of Smog or, if you’re particularly pretentious, (Smog), lets his bleeding heart show on this one, recounting the trials and tribulations of a destroyed relationship so carefully that you begin to feel the pain and heartbreak that he is as its 40-odd minutes crawl by. It’s a harrowing listen.
The Doctor Came At Dawn
consists of mostly songs that burn slow and painfully, much as a relationship would. Callahan often sits down with nothing more than an acoustic guitar as an accompaniment, although some songs, such as the excellent opener, “You Moved In”, allow some room for some strings and a piano. However, the song still feels rather sparse and depressing, as all extra instrumentation is used sparingly, simply adding some dark atmosphere to what would otherwise be too standard and bare. Callahan’s lyrics are also simple and depressing, as if he’d been reduced to nothing more but lines such as ‘you moved in/to my hotel/you could’ve done better/but oh well’. His slow, deep singing also complements the simplicity in his songwriting.
Things don’t get any happier from there on out. “Somewhere In the Night” is the only song that could be described as jovial, as the song consists of reasonably excitable playing and even some handclaps. Callahan’s lyrics, which tell a tale of a lost soul, are a different story and mood entirely, creating a juxtaposition with the instrumentation that, if anything, at least adds a brief whim of recklessness to Came at Dawn
Everything else, however, is totally dark and desolate. The slow pace and sparse (there’s that word again) instrumentation of tracks such as “Spread Our Bloody Wings” warrant comparison to an even more depressing Mark Kozelek, while the simple strumming and weird atmospherics of “All Your Women Things” bring to mind an even more suicidal Richard Youngs. “Whistling Teapot (Rag)” is the most forceful song of the bunch, both lyrically and musically, as speedy (for Callahan, anyways, which translates to around mid-paced) guitar playing is complemented by soft percussion and Callahan’s far-ranging vocal performance, which surprisingly reaches up into the higher registers with reasonable success. His lyrics are also more direct than normal, singing ‘Aw who needs you/lying in your crummy bed/while I’m out here in the cold’ with something that approaches disgust.
The last track, the nearly all a-cappella “Hangman Blues” is an experiment that goes mostly wrong and leaves much to be desired when Came at Dawn
finally spirals off. It’s interesting for about a minute, but doesn’t even come close to sustaining an overlong four-minute runtime. While Came at Dawn
’s end is reasonably disappointing, the majority of it is not: anyone with an affinity for acoustic-wielding sadsacks will find much to enjoy here. Or rather cry through here.