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Bill Callahan - Live at Third Man Records Music Album Reviews

Recorded in Nashville, the spare set of songs taken from his last three solo albums is a minor but revealing statement from the graceful singer-songwriter.

The five years since Bill Callahan put out Dream River have marked his longest hiatus yet in a career defined by momentum and steady changes—the deepening of his voice, the magnificent refinement of his writing. His few recent transmissions have all spoken to the same tranquil state of mind. There was a curio of dub remixes, a paperback book of collected lyrics, a slow and smoky contribution to a Grateful Dead tribute album. A few months after the release of Dream River, a newly affianced Callahan revealed to Pitchfork, “I love life more than I ever have, and I’m comfortable.” Soon after, he became a father. In the 52-year-old songwriter’s own words, when things are beautiful, just keep on.

Callahan’s latest release, a live set recorded at Jack White’s Third Man Records in Nashville in the fall of 2017, doesn’t quite signal a return to action. Its six songs are all selected from his last three solo albums, a trilogy of releases between 2009 and 2013 with an emotional resonance that seems to grow with every year. Coming from an artist whose body of work feels almost sociopathically well-considered (“There [are] no extra songs—I’m not an amateur,” he once said of his writing process, which, for at least one album, involved a literal quill and ink), Live at Third Man does have a slightly off-brand feel to it. Compared to his first live album, 2010’s immersive Rough Travel for a Rare Thing, his installment in Third Man’s ongoing series can’t help but feel like a minor statement.

That being said, the opportunity to revisit Callahan’s music in different settings and under different circumstances is part of his appeal. Any song or lyric, or even just the utterance of a word, can hit you differently with any listen. Without new music to highlight, Callahan’s recent shows have explored the depth of his songbook, binding disparate pieces together and allowing him to find new authority as a storyteller. Since 2013, I’ve seen him play three times, each atmospherically distinct but equally satisfying: once with a band, once solo acoustic, and once accompanied by guitarist Matt Kinsey. The latter incarnation is the one documented on this album.

Kinsey’s playing can be just as beautiful and plaintive or as jarring as Callahan’s lyrics. He builds a psychedelic helicopter squall during the climax of “Spring,” then plucks atmospheric trills through the transitions in “Jim Cain.” There’s an improvisatory flow to their performance, evident as they let the dramatic pause in “Drover” linger just long enough so the final refrain can ring with well-earned victory. “Tonight we’re gonna test out some old material,” Callahan tells the audience early in the show. It’s a joke, but not really.

If Live at Third Man feels uniquely revealing coming from Callahan, it’s down to the way the music sounds somewhat out of control—a night captured at random, for better or worse, for posterity. With the arrangements stripped bare, you notice inflections you haven’t heard before on his records: a phlegmy growl in “Ride My Arrow,” the desperate tug in his throat as he mimics a pleading audience in “Riding for the Feeling.” Just over eight minutes into a ten-minute take on “One Fine Morning,” his granite voice fails completely, breaking into a squeak as he sings the word “part,” in, “Yes, I am a part of the road—the hardest part.” Like all his most memorable moments, it sounds like an accident, just inches away from a punchline. And somehow, it feels just right.

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