Bill Callahan’s got a new album out today. As the man behind Smog, and (Smog), he’s been one of my favourite musicians for over a decade now, since the release of “Knock Knock” got my attention back in 1998. Thanks to my (hopefully) temporarily straightened circumstances, I haven’t pre-ordered the new one, but I spent last night listening to some of his older stuff. Just for old times sake, you know.
For me, Bill Callahan has been one of the best lyricists around for some years. He has a disturbing ability to be able to say just enough to discombobulate you. Sometimes, it’s just with a few well-placed words that, on their own, don’t seem to mean much, but as he builds a song to its climax, he says something that makes you stop in your tracks.
One of the great early examples of this is the song “All Your Women Things” off The Doctor Came At Dawn. In it, he describes how a woman that is no longer with him (and whether she actually left him of her own volition, or whether he got rid of her in some way is tantalisingly, and typically, left unsaid) left all her clothes and other items in his room. All fine and creepy, but then he sings (and look away now if you want to hear it for yourself before going on further):
“Oh all of these things\I gathered them\And I made a dolly”
“I made a dolly\A spread-eagle dolly\Out of your frilly things”
Oh Lordy. It was bad enough saying he’d made a dolly out of them, but then saying “A spread-eagle dolly” makes you really, really scared.
It gets worse:
“Why couldn’t I have loved you\This tenderly\When you were here?”
I really hope he means “love” in the cerebral, pure sense, rather than the “make love” sense. Or that would be….eeeeugh. And all this is gently intoned, in almost a monotone, over plucked repetative guitar lines and mournful cello. It’s seriously creepy.
Next up was “I Break Horses”. I was first turned onto this song by the music journalist Ben Thompson, who in the great Seven Years of Plenty: Handbook of Irrefutable Pop Greatness, 1991-98, described this song as “One that can reduce strong people…to heaps of quivering gelatin”. He’s not wrong. Again, Smog uses his deadpan voice, with just a hint of emotion, to describe how he breaks horses – “Just a few well placed words/And their wandering hearts are gone”.
But it’s clear that it isn’t horses he’s talking about. His horribly detailed eye for human failings has come to the fore again, and he ends the song with the unpleasantness of “Tonight I’m swimming to my favorite island\And I don’t want to see you swimming behind\I break horses\I don’t tend to them”. Again, it’s about saying just enough to tell you how truly horrible the subject of the song is, without any histrionics.
Early Smog was generally pretty lo-fi, usually just scratchy guitar and drums, with the occasional cello. But 1997’s LP “Red Apple Falls” was a shock, as the opener started with French horns, of all things. He’d gone through a major change in the way he used instrumentation, and with producer Jim O’Rourke, really opened up the sound. All the better to scare you with, my dear.
And scariness was still there, to devastating effect, on that album’s “I Was A Stranger”. Still a huge fan favourite, it tells the tale of a new man in town. When my wife (then a new girlfriend) heard it, as we sped through German forests on a weekend trip, she got rather worried that I was actually some kind of serial killer. Listen to it now then carry on reading:
(Yes, I know it’s rather odd to video yourself miming a song then post it on YouTube, but if the Internet has done one thing, it’s showed the astonishing diversity of humanity)
Right, got that last line? I wouldn’t want to spoil it for you. It’s one of the best ending lines of any song – and again, done by just saying the absolute minimum to get his message across. And what’s more, you’re still unclear as to what he’d actually done in the last town. In all the best horror movies, the mind fills in what you’re not shown, and the human brain is really rather good at scaring itself. He doesn’t need to say what he’s done – just say that he was “well known”, and criticises the locals: “And why do you women in this town\Let me look at you so bold?”. Classic.
Last in this short little retrospective is a rather gentler song, from his last album as (Smog). Now, I wouldn’t want you to think all Bill Callahan/Smog/(Smog) songs are about sociopaths and worse; this song is about how your family can help drag you back from whatever depths you’ve sunk to. To do this, he tells a tale of seeing a gold ring at the bottom of a river, and dives in to take it. But when he’s in the water, he can’t swim back from the bottom and is pulled out by his mother, father, and sisters. Yet again, in simplicity lies beauty. This time, there’s no punchline, just a repetition of the chorus – but now you have the understanding of what he’s gone through to sing those lines.
I first heard him play this live well before the album came out, and along with “The Well” (sample line: “I guess everybody has their own thing\That they yell into a well”), it got the biggest cheer of the night. By the way, he’s also the only musician I’ve ever seen who does his set-list, then says “Ok, that’s my list – what do you want to hear?” and then takes requests. Having seen him do four live shows now, he does this every time – and he doesn’t appear to be cherry-picking the songs that he’d already decided to play. For a man who really doesn’t seem at all comfortable playing in front of an audience (Ben Thompson described him as “calling into question the whole meaning of the word ‘live'”), it’s an amazing thing to do.
Anyway, I hope I haven’t scared you off with those songs. There’s loads more I could talk about – even the song titles alone give you some sense of how good he is, from “Dress Sexy At My Funeral” to “Prince Alone In A Studio”. He’s an amazing artist; I just hope that he manages to get the recognition he deserves. And look, no mention of either Cat Power or Joanna Newsom.
MP3: Eid Ma Clack Shaw by Bill Callahan (from Bill’s new album, Sometime I Wish We Were An Eagle)