Though he hasn’t exactly lingered in obscurity, you’d think someone with Bill Callahan’s track record would have a wider fan base. For nearly 20 years he’s been writing unique songs marked by caustic wit and introspective, erratic lyrics. His dour tone will always be a turn-off for some listeners, but under his own name and the moniker Smog he’s conjured many hummable tunes and made music that veers dangerously close to being pretty, suggesting an untapped audience even larger than the one he picked up after his song “Cold Blooded Old Times” appeared on the High Fidelity soundtrack in 2000. Further exposure came when his song “Held” provided the soundtrack for a Cadillac commercial in which Bob Dylan drives through the desert in an Escalade, though most viewers probably had no clue who Bob was jamming on the stereo.
Callahan’s first singles and albums as Smog, collections of solo lo-fi/four-track recordings, appeared in the early ’90s. Those singles and albums already demonstrated the black humor and melancholy air that would come to define a Callahan song, and they still retain a rough-hewn charm. As he came to refine his songwriting and work with larger ensembles, he largely eschewed the drum machines, samples, and pure bursts of noise found on these early albums. Since he first made his name as a one-man show, some fans have wondered if he’ll ever return to that method in a more developed studio setting.
“I’ve thought about it,” he writes in an e-mail interview. “I’ve snuck a few songs on later records here and there that are just me. But mostly I like the blossoming of a group trying to make a song happen. If I did it all alone again, I would want the engineer to leave the room for much of it. Set me up and leave until I text them to come back and change something. It would be a strange record. I should do it.”
Though fans have their favorites, Callahan doesn’t seem to have an album that immediately stands head and shoulders above the others; each outing is a dependable collection delivered with a sober baritone voice that keeps getting deeper. He frequently employs a sing-speak cadence that owes a lot to solo Lou Reed, but Callahan has a range Reed lacks, occasionally doing a passable job of hitting the high notes. While you’d never mistake a Smog/Callahan record for anyone else, each is sonically different. Callahan’s restlessness and exploratory nature lead him to use a wide variety of musicians, instrumentation, and producers.
A career overview is long overdue, preferably a double album. If and when such a thing does come out, it will probably be revelatory to those who have ignored him or are only familiar with his later years, and a pleasant surprise to those who listened to him years ago but stopped keeping up with his steady output.
His early songs especially were painful confessionals concerning failed or doomed relationships, earning him a cult following, but also charges of being maudlin and even misogynistic. A more generous reading might see the songs as displaying a brutal honesty about the darker side of romantic entanglements, Callahan’s narrators giving voice to the uglier, shameful thoughts we don’t like to admit to ourselves we have. It’s a topic rarely explored in popular music with such candor.
Though he’s lightened up a bit and doesn’t paint such a bleak picture these days, Callahan’s new album Sometimes I Wish I Were an Eagle still seems the work of a man somewhat ill at ease with the world, as evinced in titles like “All Thoughts Are Prey to Some Beast” and lyrics such as “Love is the king of beasts/and when it gets hungry it must eat,” from the inscrutably titled “Eid Ma Clack Shaw.” Even one of the most tender love songs he’s written, “Rococo Zephyr,” concludes with the hedging statement, “I used to be blind but now I can sorta see.” The album closes with the lilting 10-minute anti-gospel tune “Faith/Void,” with Callahan repeating the refrain “It’s time to put God away.” He doesn’t sing it in a confrontational or resigned way, but with a sense of confidence and peace. A sing-along hymn for atheists, it suggests at least one thing that might have been troubling him won’t trouble him any longer.
In 2007 Callahan stepped out from behind the Smog moniker and began recording and performing under his own name. Almost every review of his first post-Smog album, Woke on a Whaleheart, read some larger meaning into this change.
“I don’t think anyone cares that much,” he says. “People remark on it just because it’s easier than saying something of worth. The why is just that I wanted a change. The band name had lost meaning over time. I just adjust things so they continue to have meaning to me.”