A Smog Retrospective

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Bill CallahanYou may or may not have heard of Smog, aka Bill Callahan—since he mostly used the alias throughout his career I will use it, for the most part, throughout.  However, if you have not had the pleasure of listening to his songs it’s just a matter of time before you make his acquaintance.  I’m not arguing, exactly, that Smog will be playing through the speakers at Best Buy any time soon, but if Smog were a stock, his value would be at an all-time high; with each successive album he garners a slightly larger listenership—each successive album sells just a bit more than the previous one.  Smog is nothing if not dogged in his pursuit of musical perfection and his albums have generally, as a result, exhibited an advance of texture, melody and complexity.  Smog’s career is inspiring in that he rose from essentially nothing musically speaking to produce some of the best indie-rock/folk albums of the past fifteen years or so.  Moreover, as the artist behind sixteen different albums over the past twenty seven years (plus miscellany), Smog stands up there with some of the most prolific musical artists of his era.  Smog offers the listener quality, but also quantity.

In 1990 Smog began self-releasing albums of discordant noise rock, highly instrumental and brooding.  Sewn to the Sky, Smog’s first effort, isn’t terrible, but it reminds me of Sonic Youth without any of the interplay.  It’s not particularly interesting.  Forgotten Foundation and Julius Caesar have better production quality and are listenable, but overall they come across as the punk rock noodling of a young man in his 20’s.  With songs like “With a Green Complexion” and “This Insane Cop” Smog’s voice is generally higher in pitch than it becomes later and the songs are far shorter and essentially do one thing.  Early Smog seems to be embracing a kind of short-hand irony—“Strawberry Rash,” “I am Star Wars!”  He sounds a bit like bands such as The Moldy Peaches—a bit one dimensional, a bit too cute and often dissonant for the sake of dissonance.  It is difficult to imagine that the same artist who made Forgotten Foundation would also make 2013’s Dream River or 2011’s Apocalypse.

Smog’s development both as a songwriter and performer really kicked in from 1995’s Wild Love to 1999’s Knock Knock.  Partially, this had to do with the influence of Jim O’Rourke, who later worked with Thurston Moore and Wilco, among many others.  Also, Wild Love was the first Smog album where he started making long, slow-building songs heavy on repetition—this became his signature sound.  Though many cuts on the album are still short—under two minutes—the most effective songs on the album are his sprawling epics “Bathysphere,” and to a lesser extent, “Prince Alone in the Studio” (which takes on an air of high-melancholy now).  “Bathysphere” is a work of an imaginative mastermind—it is so far above and beyond the rest of the album as to seem made by a different musician entirely.  In this first “hit,” Smog realized that a groove and a beat go a long way—stark horns, drums and a swirling guitar dominate.  Add to this the narrator’s wish to be lowered into the sea in said bathysphere (“I wanted to live in a bathysphere”) away from his family—and you have an immensely listenable song.  For the first time Smog seemed less concerned with making an impression than telling a story and creating an unforgettable mood.  “It’s Rough” with its gravelly guitar work and slow-build, is another highlight from Wild Love.

The Doctor Came at Dawn (1996) and Red Apple Falls (1997) are both highly compelling albums and they mark the end of Smog’s early progression and the beginning of his mature work.  The Doctor Came at Dawn seems to mostly catalogue the downfall of a relationship (Smog’s Sea Change?).  Notable songs include the clappity clap “Somewhere in the Night” (I fully admit I have a thing for songs that incorporate clapping) and the ultra-spare “Lize.”  The Doctor Came at Dawn is, in fact, a kind of throwback folk album at heart.  1997’s Red Apple Falls, with its cover of a fanciful cathedral, on the other hand, is perhaps Smog’s first great album.  “Red Apples,” later covered, memorably by Cat Power, is an absolute stunner—“I went down to the river to meet the widow.  She gave me an apple, it was red.”  Accompanied only by piano, drum and Hammond organ, Smog sings about spending a night (though it could have been 100 years) with said widow.  Later the ghost of the widow’s husband pulls an apple cart through the business end of the song.  “Red Apples” reminds me of a dream I never had, a kind of lived fairy tale.  I get the goosebumps each time I listen to it.  Smog continues the story of the widow in the title song, later in her relationship with the speaker when they are sick of each other.  In this number the steel guitar dominates and the song has a mellow country tinge.  “To Be of Use” is an honest sexual and practical confessional, but it and most of Smog’s songs somehow avoid earnest belaboring.  The pace of this album is extremely deliberate—so slow the songs almost seem to go in reverse.  It is a dreamy and reflective album, so unlike the grunge records that appeared in the late 90’s.

My favorite album of this period—and one of the best Smog albums hands down—is 1999’s Knock Knock.  In many ways Knock Knock is the counterpoint to the methodical Red Apple Falls—this is the first Smog album where he consistently rocks out, even including some grunge-worthy guitars in places and, strangely, singing groups of children in several numbers.  The entire album is quite odd, really—as implied by the cover featuring a freaked-out wildcat with lightning bolts spidering over the ominous horizon in the background.  “Hit the Ground Running,” is one of Smog’s most propulsive songs with its snowballing beat and extensive layers.  Likewise, “Cold Blooded Old Times,” and “Held,” feature a much more percussive and electronic bent to Smog’s music.  “River Guard” is another gem—this one seemingly like a sonic leftover from Red Apple Falls, just Callahan with slowly strummed guitar and a bit of piano.  “When I take the prisoners swimming.  They have the time of their lives,” the song opens.  But then the guard realizes, “we are constantly on trial.  It’s a way to be free.”  Another gooseflesh song.

In the early oughts Smog astoundingly put out five more albums under his alias—Dongs of Sevotion, Rain on Lens, Accumulation:  None, Supper and A River Ain’t Too Much to Love.  Seemingly every year, Smog came out with a new quality album.  Yes, in the case of Accumulation:  None, the album consisted primarily of rarities and rereleased material, but most of these albums are spectacular, especially Supper and A River Ain’t Too Much to Love.  For the sake of space and time I will not provide an album-by-album analysis of each one.  Suffice it to say, Smog’s songwriting and work in general continued to advance generally.  There is a particularly fond place in my heart for “Our Anniversary,” (from the highly underrated Supper) one of the Smog songs that used to come up on my Pandora frequently at work a decade ago—it is both dispiriting and oddly romantic simultaneously.  Another occasional song, “Dress Sexy at My Funeral,” (from the uh, playfully titled Dongs of Sevotion) is an ironic favorite of mine—Smog’s sense of humor is highly unappreciated.  Another must-listen from Dongs of Sevotion is “Bloodflow,” which aside from its wonderful use of the jaw harp, would feel right at home on Knock Knock.  At over seven minutes long, it’s a pulsing gorilla of a track. 

A River Ain’t Too Much to Love, one of the most poignant Smog albums, features more low-key songs such as “Rock Bottom Riser,” and “Let Me See the Colts.”  When I listen to the slow, expansive acoustic songs like “Let Me See the Colts,” I think of Leonard Cohen and Johnny Cash a bit, but moreso I am reminded of Van Morrison from his Into the Mystic era.  The way the songs slowly expand outward using the rhythm of the drums and cymbals evoke Van the Man.  The half-talking, half-singing nature-worshiping languor is just right on this album.  Like Van Morrison, Smog’s songs have a metaphysical quality—though with Smog it is far less mystical, it seems, than it is a deep reverence for nature itself (especially birds, mountains, rivers and open vistas—his album covers often feature one or more of these elements).  “Is there anything as still as sleeping horses?” he asks.  No, actually, there isn’t.

Finally, from 2007 until the present Smog—not seeking my approval—dropped the alias Smog entirely for Bill Callahan.  I think of it as the reverse Prince—instead of transitioning into the glyph, he shed the angsty mask entirely.  I don’t see that much of a difference myself—and personally I still prefer “Smog,” which is both timely and catchy.  However, the artistic production did not abate:  he came out with four more albums—Woke on a Whaleheart, Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle, Apocalypse, and Dream River.  This guy is an absolute beast.  All of these albums are fascinating, each with a slightly different feel.  Woke on a Whaleheart is one of Bill Callahan’s steely albums, with a sharper edge, a garish cover and songs like “Diamond Dancer,” a true Bill Callahan dance number (if that isn’t an oxymoron).  Other standouts include “The Wheel,” where he pushes the talking/singing thing to its logical conclusion, resulting in a kind of Johnny Cash tune.  “Sycamore,” one of Bill Callahan’s oddest tunes also appears on this album.  Callahan has a proclivity for occasional playful nonsense word games—for instance the gorgeous “Too Little Birds” in which he utilizes extreme repetition, adding a word or two to each phrase.  “Sycamore” has a line that goes, “all you want to do is be the fire part of fire.”  I have no idea what that means, but it works for me.  Bill Calahan’s most recent album, 2013’s Dream River, didn’t really grab me by the lapels, despite the hushed concert he put on in Washington, D.C. at the 6th and I Historic Synagogue (Smog is originally from Silver Spring, Maryland—another strike in his favor as a local artist).  In his most recent album the songs are textured and well-written and performed, as always, but they sprawl a bit too much for my taste generally and perhaps don’t have that usual Smog hook.  Or perhaps it’s just a bit too many Bill Callahan songs, or maybe it’s a bit too much sameness at this juncture.  I did dig the clave that appears in many of the songs as well as the general instrumental interplay, but overall it’s not my favorite album of his by a long stretch. 

I fully admit Smog is not for everyone.  Some listeners might not cotton to his baritone (his voice has deepened) or eccentricity or the long, sincere nature-oriented songs.  However, those Smog-abstainers are missing out on one of the most creative and interesting songbooks in current American indie-rock/folk/alt-country/however you want to categorize this unique artist.  Abstainers would miss out on one of the most gorgeous songs of the past ten years, “Riding for the Feeling,” from 2011’s Apocalypse, for instance, as well as the scintillating and prescient “America!” from the same album (a rare political statement).  Very few musical artists outside of Bob Dylan can involve the listener in a better first person narration.  In fact, Smog’s songs are so voice and narrative-based, I think of many of Smog’s songs as little short stories (little surprise that he published a novel via Drag City, Emma Bowlcut).  I keep thinking of musicians with whom I can compare Smog.  Despite some similarities here and there to others (as mentioned above), mostly the parallels don’t stick; he’s unique unto himself.  We are fortunate. 

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About Author

Nathan Leslie’s nine books of fiction include Root and ShootSibs, and Drivers.  He is also the author of The Tall Tale of Tommy Twice, a novel, and Night Sweat, a poetry collection.  His work has appeared in hundreds of literary magazines including BoulevardShenandoahNorth American Review, and Cimarron Review. Nathan was series editor for The Best of the Web anthology 2008 and 2009 (Dzanc Books) and edited fiction for Pedestal Magazine for many years.  He is currently interviews editor at Prick of the Spindle and writes a monthly music column for Atticus Review.  His work appears in Best Small Fictions 2016.  Check him out on Twitter and Facebook as well as at www.nathanleslie.com.  

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