The Bloody Poetry Of Bill Callahan

When I first consciously heard the voice of Bill Callahan, who is Smog, I got it completely wrong. It was a track called 'Your Face', a strumalong croon on a Drag City compilation. I was half-listening, and picked up what I thought was a minimalist hymn to a lover's beauty.

The tune was nice, the arrangement was sparse and affecting, and it soon found its way onto a tape I made of the same sort of sweet melancholy stuff. Other tracks included Sebadoh's 'Willing To Wait', Brian Wilson's stripped-down 'Love And Mercy' from I Just Wasn't Made For These Times... you get the flavour.

So I listened to it, without really listening to it, a few times, then it sort of slipped, although I still had fond memories. Then, a few months later, some musician friends were at my house, in search of some fresh material to use as a cover version. Ramones and Wire exhausted, they started down an unplugged direction, and I suggested something gentle and affecting like 'Your Face'.

So we sat and we listened, and I realised that I was really hearing it for the first time because, as the bassist pointed out, 'It's about faking orgasms, really, isn't it?' A few bars later, the singer mused 'It's a relationship going wrong. I mean really wrong. Like, beyond Elvis Costello.'

See, that's what Callahan does. He kinda sneaks into your brain under flase pretences. He invades those lo-fi country synapses colonised by the more loudly-lauded Bonnie Prince Billy and Silver Jews, and stays there, laid-back, unassuming, but persistently memorable. Even if you get the thing that you ought to be remembering totally arse-about-face.

He writes about sex and death and despair, like all good gothick-country outsiders, in a way that is sometimes so uncomfortable that you wish he'd just do a few instrumentals. 'Every girl I've ever loved has wanted to be hit.' 'I was distracted by your little girl ways.' 'I remember entering you / I'm gonna be drunk, so drunk at your wedding.' See why I wanted to misunderstand him? Blood is a running motif, whether it's from a friendly machete fight ('Bloodflow' from Dongs Of Sevotion) or weird, semi-Wagnerian Viking dreamscapes ('Spread Your Bloody Wings' from Doctor Came At Dawn). He carries his fascination with the red stuff into the profoundly disconcerting 'Bathroom Floor', where a girl's first period ('maybe she's just a late bloomer' is her mother's passing thought, unaware of the trauma going on upstairs) is serenaded with the blunt 'you'd already bloomed and died'. Lewis Carroll mates with Angela Carter and the offspring wears a plaid shirt and overalls.

Callahan is a social observer, like the Tom Waits of Swordfishtrombones, but without the obvious heart. 'My Family', from the Burning Kingdom EP, uses Waitsian stomping, streetband percussion and keening strings to create a vignette of emotional sterility where love should be:

    'Mother's smoking pot in the bathroom. I can hear her butt squeaking on the tub As the water grows cold around her legs. And father is in the study Watching a vague lesbian scene.'

Crucially, the lesbian scene has to be 'vague' to harness the essential banality of the picture Callahan paints. Father's not watching hardcore porn; he's watching the saxophone-backed plucked-and-lipsticked ooh-aah 'erotica' that shows up late at night Channel 5, or on whatever shitty suburban station Dad's tuned to. Or maybe he's just watching a subscription channel through the fuzz of a wonky decoder that he bought from some bloke in his melamine office. There are elements of Philip Larkin here, the fusion of the sordid, the mundane, and the melancholy, to make a nugget that astounds with its unlikely beauty.

For 2001's Rain On Lens, Callahan started calling himself (Smog), a typographical quirk he maintains on his latest album, Supper (Domino, released 7 April). It's more than a little appropriate. He gets under your skin parenthetically, laterally, when you're not looking. You shake your fist at him, the way I did when he fooled me with his fake orgasm song.

Which is not to say he can't be damn funny as well. 'When they make the movie of your life / They're gonna have to ask you to do your own stunts,' he deadpans on 'Feather By Feather'. But as ever, wistful melancholia hangs over the landscape like... well, like smog, really. Or (smog), even. So, in 'Morality' a whoops-vicar-there-go-my-trousers farce turns into some kind of ninty-ninth nervous breakdown. And 'Driving' takes the form of a ragged, banjo-driven funeral anthem, like that little-seen episode of Little House On The Prairie co-directed by Ken Loach and Mike Leigh. With script assistance from Stevie Smith.

As ever, Callahan remains small and imperfectly formed. Like all good things.

© 2003 Tim Footman