April 10, 2011


He Can Sing It, if Not Speak It (BEN RATLIFF, 4/08/11, NY Times)

The record’s fulcrum, lyrically and conceptually, comes around the middle, halfway through the fourth track. In the song, “Universal Applicant,” over a slithering, one-chord piece of music, the narrator fires a flare gun, an action that Mr. Callahan first describes and then imitates, in two small and precise aspirant sounds. I noticed it — went back to hear it a few times more in fact — but didn’t know how important it was to the whole work.

“That part of the song is the turning point of the record,” he told me recently. In e-mail, he is sharp and funny and occasionally strident, but in person he’s nearly the opposite: hesitating to name or quantify very much, rounding off incomplete thoughts with quick, conciliatory grins. At my request we went to a place where we could talk freely in almost complete quiet, a Midtown office-building cafeteria at night. Still, he radiated reluctance, and my recorder had trouble registering his voice.

“The record,” he continued, “is kind of, like, blind, or searching, until that point, and then the flare goes off and the music stops for a second. And from that point on, it’s like, the music is illuminated.” It makes sense once you hear him put it this way: The themes on the second half of the record are about acceptance, freedom and “riding for the feeling.” But he doesn’t expect anyone else to pick up on it. “There is a story line there that is speaking to some part of your body,” he said uneasily. “It’s pretty abstract.”

This is what Mr. Callahan does: put a big and mysterious idea in a modest place. He has gotten better and better at it. “The thing that’s uniquely his,” said the singer-songwriter John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats in a recent e-mail, “is to sort of smuggle in scenes of remarkable emotional and, I gotta say, spiritual weight within these fairly light constructions.”

The first time I saw Mr. Callahan perform, in the mid-90s, he was working under the name Smog, and he had recently come to terms with his deep voice. He sang indirect character sketches about bad or isolated people in a series of blank monotones, accompanying himself crudely with acoustic guitar; he stood tall and thin and upright under neat, boyish brown hair, a catatonic expression and yellow sunglasses.

He seemed very, very strange. An audience was there to see him. He was already, in underground terms, a hero and a major object of interest for the kind of woman who loves Leonard Cohen records. But he made no visible effort to connect with it. Of course he was connecting like crazy.

He was past 30 then, and into his middle period. By that point, as Smog, he’d already made 10 albums in nine years — if you include 4 squalid-sounding homemade cassettes available by mail order through his mid-80s fanzine, Disaster, in which his writing style was as talky and alive as his later performance style was Dr. Bleak.

The early period began at home in Silver Spring, Md. (Mr. Callahan’s father spent his career with the National Security Agency as a language analyst; his mother worked there too. “Doing what?” I asked. “Same sort of thing,” he said. Eight seconds elapsed. “You know, like code....” he trailed off. “Breaking.”) He wrote songs as a teenager, quit for a while, and restarted at 22, with an eight-track recorder and a guitar he didn’t know how to play very well.

His early songs were squawked in a high voice; he wrote from the id about alienation and contempt. “I feel like an astronaut/suffocating on the moon,” went a lyric to a pained song, “Astronaut,” one of dozens. (He would gradually move toward songs about sex and sadness and vengeance — he is an admirer of the novelists James M. Cain and Richard Yates — and finally to his present state of grace, in which love is not always tortured and the metaphors run prehistoric: water, horses, birds.)

Originally, he said, he envisioned that he would never perform, do interviews, or sell a record. Did that come from the fanzine and hardcore-punk ethos of never compromising? Or was that something innate?

“Um,” he said. “I don’t know.”

Bill Callahan: 'I've finally accepted that I'm an entertainer': The former Smog man is back with a new album, Apocalypse, that deals with America, emotions and the 'cattle inside you'. Just don't tell him it's a change of direction ... (Ben Thompson, 3/31/11, guardian.co.uk)
Recently, there have been welcome signs of Callahan's stern public visage cracking into a smile. "A couple of years ago," he explains, "I realised that I was an entertainer" – he pauses for a moment, as if waiting for an unseen drummer to round off a punchline – "and that helped me immensely. From the first time you can look in the paper and you accept that you're the entertainment for some people that night," he continues, "it becomes so much more enjoyable to play live. Before that I was always wondering, 'What am I?'"

Callahan's moment of clarity has benefited both audience and performer. First, he abandoned the wilfully off-putting stage name Smog (on the characteristically gnomic grounds that "hanging on to it any longer didn't seem healthy"). Then 2009's Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle – the second album released under his own name, and one of his most accessible records to date – struck a chord with a wider audience. By an irony that will not be lost on its writer, the song which did more than any other to bring him a new audience was Eid Ma Clack Shaw – a hilariously unsparing depiction of the vanity of the artist, in which a lovelorn Callahan "dreams the perfect song", then wakes to find the lyrics are gibberish.

For those who are already devotees, it will suffice to say that Callahan's new album, Apocalypse, bears roughly the same relation to its surprisingly accessible predecessor as 2005's blues-tinged A River Ain't Too Much to Love did to 2004's unexpectedly palatable Supper; while less accessible, it flows with a sinuous unity every bit as captivating. For those not yet properly acquainted with this man's compendious oeuvre, a riveting encyclopedia of human frailty awaits your exploration.

I think Callahan's best work – any of the three albums named above, as well as earlier creative highlights Wild Love, The Doctor Came at Dawn, Red Apple Falls and Knock Knock - ranks alongside that of his friend and Drag City (and formerly Domino) labelmate Will Oldham (aka Bonnie "Prince" Billy) as the finest English-language songwriting of the last 20 years. And while not so explicit a departure in terms of subject matter as, say, Sonic Youth's Dirty or PJ Harvey's Let England Shake, Apocalypse registers an intriguing shift away from the forensic self-examination that has been his traditional stock-in-trade towards a more external, geopolitically rooted brand of lyricism.

Callahan – who once observed that his tendency to instinctively refute all statements made by interviewers was "natural in any exchange between someone who has the answers and someone who doesn't" – is having none of this.

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Posted by at April 10, 2011 6:49 AM

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