Review Summary: In conclusion, leaving is easy,
when you've got some place you need to be
It would be nearly impossible for us to take an outsiders perspective on something that is an essential part of our everyday lives. Imagine taking something you value the most: your job, your relationships, your sports team, your music, or anything else and all of the sudden having to view it from an outside perspective. The difficulty this would place on you mentally and physically is hard to grasp and the effects that this process would have on your family and friends would be impossible to comprehend. On paper this is a process that is not even worth trying. The process of being an outsider should be a process left to the outsiders and not you.
Bill Callahan was not an outsider to American culture, stereotypes, geography, relationships, history, and politics but he took the perspective of an outsider for his excellent album "Apocalypse". Bill strips himself of all his previous knowledge of America (which judging by my limited exposure to his previous work seems almost endless) and creates a almost genius record about his "American apocalypse" from an outsiders point of view. Bill Callahan was able to make "Apocalypse" from an outsiders perspective because of the instrumentation of the album, the lyrics, the vocals, and just making good songs overall.
The first thing that makes Bill Callahan's "American apocalypse" possible is that this record has a sound that seems to be someone's journey through America. This sound is hard to describe but it is really just Callahan prescribing to the "less is more" philosophy with his instrumentation on this album. The heavy use of the acoustic guitar and other folk instruments gives you the impression that the person that is making this album has not been influenced by the new technology used to make music "American music". Every song on this album also seems to give you the feeling of someone going on a journey or exploring a new "American" idea. Some examples of this are the fast paced acoustic feel of "Drover", the laid back feel of "Baby's Breath", the soft electric riff in "Riding For The Feeling", and the culmination of all of these sounds in "One Fine Morning". Even though Callahan was born in Maryland, "Apocalypse" gives us the impression that he is just taking his first steps on a journey through America and one of the reasons we get this impression of because of the instrumental simplicity and western feel.
The lyrics on the album also greatly add to the "just coming to America" feel. On the great opener "Drover" Callahan plays his acoustic guitar very fast while discussing old western stereotypes, on "Baby's Breath" he discusses the process of new life and the effect this has on him, "America!" is his first views of this "new" country that are almost painfully optimistic and stereotype, "Universal Applicant" is his first venture into American theology and first real understanding of some parts of American culture and behavior, "Riding For The Feeling" seems to be a description of his first relationships in the new country, "Free's" is his first understanding of American history and freedom in general, and "One Fine Morning" seems to be the perfect beautiful conclusion of all of his American experiences. When reviewing all of the lyrical concepts from "Apocalypse" it is safe to say that Callahan excelled at writing these lyrics from an OUTSIDERS perspective and did not let his biases halter his great songwriting.
Another thing that allows Callahan to accomplish his goal of creating an album from the perspective of an American outsider is his style of vocals. Callahan sings in such a monotone voice that it is almost like he is not singing rather narrating. Normally I am not a fan of "talking singing" but it is very beneficial to the "coming to America" album Callahan is trying to create. Instead of overextending his vocals and making it seem like just a normal album, Callahan's "narrator" voice seems to be a voice that is guiding us through his journey of America. It seems like every song on here is seven chapters in his story of coming to America instead of just seven songs. Callahan's monotone almost "talking" vocals give us the feel that he is telling a story of coming to America instead of just recording seven plain songs.
Just about every song on this album is pretty damn good and that helps Callahan accomplish his goals for "Apocalyspe". "Drover" is the perfect introduction to the album, "Universal Applicant" matches Callahan's vocals with the laid back instrumentation so well that it is almost moving, "Riding For The Feeling" is tough to describe as anything but one of the best songs of 2011 so far, "America" features some of the most ironic and witty lyrics of the year while having one of the best riffs, and "One Fine Morning" is the perfect conclusion to the album (even if he could have maybe shaved a couple of minutes off of it). Callahan cannot accomplish his goal of making an epic album about an outsiders experience of coming to America if the songs on this album are not really good and the songs on the album would not be really good if the instrumentation, lyrics, and vocals were not excellent.
It might take us an "apocalypse" to view things from an outsiders perspective because we are often so stubborn about things we love or the things we just know a lot about. Well Bill Callahan was stubborn enough to making an album about an outsider's perspective and views about coming to America. His stubbornness led him to creating a near masterpiece and one of the best albums of 2011. Sometimes its good to be an outsider.