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Keeping the mystery

Bill Callahan's Apocalypse reveals little, but in a good way

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Sigmund Freud was certifiably off the wall when he came up with "penis envy." I do believe, however, in envy of another kind: voice envy. What I would give to be able to sing with a deep, whiskey-rich voice like Bill Callahan's, no matter how odd it would sound coming out of a smart aleck 20-something woman's mouth.

Before watching Apocalypse: A Bill Callahan Tour Film, my biggest familiarity with his work was through Smog, the moniker under which he put out records from the late '80s through the early aughts. Smog is probably best known for "Cold Blooded Hard Times," which was featured on the High Fidelity soundtrack in 2000. In 2007, Callahan started releasing work under his own name. Throughout the years, he's stayed with the Chicago-based indie label Drag City.

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Coming away from the lovely, understated documentary, I know absolutely nothing more about the guy than I did before: not where he's from or whether he's married or what his opinion on the current state of the music industry is. Callahan seems like a character out of a novel, existing only to create his slow, poetic, lo-fi brand of Americana. This is wonderful.

I like knowing as little about my favorite musicians as possible, see, because invariably, the artists who transport me to another place and express my most embarrassing emotions are, uh, human. Humans who sometimes say douchey things or hold views I find offensive or creep on teenage girls, etc., etc. I'm too young to remember life without Google, but I like to imagine that before the internet made every detail of a person's life available at a few clicks, music was more mysterious. Musicians who remain determinedly enigmatic like Callahan seem like a rarity in our media-saturated days.

Apocalypse, shot and directed by Austin-based filmmaker Hanly Banks over two weeks of the American leg of a 2011 tour, is mostly a concert video. The easy pacing, trippy color filters and beautiful, hazy shots make Apocalypse highly suitable viewing for a laid-back evening, ideally accompanied by a beer or an herbal remedy.

What we don't see much of: band members, crowds at the shows, any adoring fans. We see the 46-year-old Callahan on a dark stage dressed in a white suit jacket, strumming his guitar, a spotlight illuminating his still-young face, cut between shots of sunny, summery roadside Americana and interviews where he delivers cryptic soundbites on what he likes to write songs about.

What Callahan seems to lack is a sense of humor. I feel like if I'd made that joke about penis envy to Callahan's face, he'd just stare at me and then walk away. Apocalypse falters a bit in a part where he sings "America" over and over while images of a baseball player sliding into homebase are superimposed on Callahan's face. It's unsubtle to the point of silliness.

But maybe Callahan shouldn't have a sense of humor. His oeuvre is melancholy rock music to play in your car on a long, solo road trip or while lying in bed recovering from a break-up. Friends of mine who avoid expression of feelings at all costs will likely not care for Callahan's heart-on-his-sleeve intensity, but that's their loss. My favorite Smog song is "I Break Horses," a B-side that's about a man who breaks horses but "does not tend to them," and the whole thing is a metaphor for sleeping with women and not calling them back. I simultaneously understand how overdramatic the song is and sit back feeling devastated by it every time.

In many ways, Callahan's somber tone and beautiful poetry remind me of Leonard Cohen, another artist firmly in favor of expressing serious feelings. The two share a rich songwriter's voice that imparts authority even when they're being heavy handed with the metaphors.

The hour-long film doesn't reach a resolution: Callahan just takes a break, then plays an encore and finishes. The credits roll and he remains a distant figure on a stage. We can't all sound like he does, but we can sing along and imagine we do. We can take home whatever we want from his music, because by keeping his motivations secret, Callahan lets his art be ours.

Apocalypse: A Bill Callahan Tour Film screens at the Crystal Theatre Fri., Nov. 16, at 7 and 9 PM. $7/$5 for students.

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