The fact that Bill Callahan’s most recent LP sheds his well-worn Smog alias should be of little consequence—over the course of a dozen Drag City releases, his deadpan baritone and evocative, rewarding talents as a songwriter have become as familiar to snap-button indies as his given name. And yet the fact that Woke on a Whaleheart comes from Bill Callahan, not Smog, somehow lends the record’s typically clever and confident one-liners more magnitude, whether Callahan is passing along a fatherly nugget on the Byrds-touched “Sycamore” (“Remember to love in the wild and fight in the gym”) or spitballing maxims of his own design (self-evident in the title of “A Man Needs a Woman or a Man to Be a Man”).
The most significant difference between Smog’s last and Callahan’s first can be heard in the contributions of Royal Trux guitarist Neil Michael Haggerty. Like Whaleheart‘s few other ill-focused songs, the meandering six-minute opener “From the Rivers to the Oceans” is saved by Haggerty’s elegant arrangement and rich production. Even so, when everything falls into place, as on the gospel call-and-response of “The Wheel” or the lusty groove of “Diamond Dancer,” the rewards are singular. They could only come from Bill Callahan.