How does one penetrate the enigma that is Bill Callahan? On one hand, we have an experimental songwriter who has been writing music prolifically for over two decades since he first emerged under the one-man band of Smog in 1990. Then we have this sullen, undefinable character who’s mystery draws you in like a moth to a fluorescent light. His music wavers between being warm and intimate then stony and withdrawn – his demeanor ingrained with nothing short of Clint Eastwood-like stoicism. Ashamedly, I only became aware of his existence a couple year ago with album Apocalypse, released in 2011. I was firstly captivated by the beautiful album artwork – a painting of a rich American landscape. Then I became paralysed by his deep, cowboy drawl and lingering prose. I began digging through the crates, working my way backwards from the Americana alt country sounds in Apocalypse toward his more lo-fi recordings in his Smog days.
There is still exceedingly little known about this man, even after fourteen albums. Interviewers have known him to be renowned for his subversive disposition, describing him to be almost emotionally vacant. He grows reluctant when asked questions about the interpretation of his music and lyrics, stating that some things are better left unknown. In an interview for Mixed Media, he is asked what exactly it is he hopes to communicate through his songs – “That would be boring, to be someone who can explain everything. Some people love to have theories about the work they do and tell you all about them. When I’m reading stuff like that, I just think I’d rather just see the painting or see the movie or hear the song than hear you explain to me what you’re doing.” Rather, Callahan writes through the voices of characters, telling stories of a sobering distance between people. A great example of his subtly chilling imagery would be the track My Family from Smog’s 1994 record Burning Kingdom. He describes a mother in a bathroom smoking pot, her ass squeaking in the tub while next door the father is in the study watching porn. He has a very real and simple insight into human frailty which gives his music a deeper reverence. His music destroys you. In a good way.
Light up your cigarette, stare off into the distance and imagine him playing before you at Happy 2014.
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