August 2005


Red rage in the brambles

By Robert Forster
The strange and the strangely familiar lurk in ‘A River Ain't Too Much to Love’

Smog is Bill Callahan, a man of lyrics and a deep voice, a loner, a drifter, who notices the weather and is wise to past teenage trauma and sticky romance, to his ever-growing connection to the rural and his hipster desire to stay in the cities. He is in a quandary, always moving on. He is a one-man band who from record to record works with different musicians in different places. A River Ain’t Too Much to Love, his 12th album, gets all of this, at a juncture in his recording life when he has found perhaps his best method of articulating these things.

The city or the country. This time he’s gone to the country, to a Texas recording studio used by Willie Nelson. Around him is a sparse band: some drums and low electric bass; a fiddle, a piano; Callahan’s guitar, rarely overdubbed, and on some songs a nylon-string guitar like Willie’s, which might be what led him here. Callahan’s voice is high in the mix, the way they used to do it on country and folk records in the 1960s and 70s, a rich but dry baritone. Think Tom T. Hall or Leonard Cohen or a young Lee Marvin. The voice hangs there to dry, close to the ear, tumbling bravely and without much range through the melodies.

Like a lot of 1990s artists, Callahan began with the bedroom intimacy of four-track recordings at home. He has grown out of that and now roams towards the electric, the grand, the experimental, while keeping the intimacy. Unlike Elliott Smith, who took the hushed four-track tones and exploded them out to the world, Callahan has an appreciation for the more traditional forms of music rather than for nascent underground pop trauma. This appreciation has led him to where he is now, to Texas, wanting to hit on big truths, to an album where the first line reads: “Winter weather is not my soul / But the biding for spring”.

“Palimpsest”, the first of ten tracks, is more a short poem than a song, plucked on a Spanish guitar. From here the album continues in gradations. “Say Valley Maker”, with its artful entry of drums, a woman’s voice and keyboard sounds, is a haiku-like greeting card. Track three, “The Well”, is a step up again, seven minutes long and it doesn’t put a foot wrong. Callahan writes two kinds of songs: up-tempo numbers, which sometimes skip along to a Velvet Underground-like two-chord groove, and minor-key ballads, which are slower and not so melodic and usually pre-occupied with dark themes. These ballads are hard work, cutting Smog off from a bigger audience while drawing his believers closer to the fire. On this record they work better than they have in the past, but it’s when he goes up-tempo, when he stretches himself, that he’s at his best. And that’s “The Well”.

It begins: “I could not work / So I threw a bottle into the woods”. Immediately we are drawn into a tale of Bill going into these woods, coming to an abandoned well, opening its boards, feeling a drop of water on his neck and leaning over:

I guess everybody has their own thing

That they yell into a well

The album is the well. Then we get verses of what he’d yell:

So I gave it my red rage, my yellow streak

The greenest parts of me

And my blues and I knew just what I had to do

The record goes on over hills and valleys. There are brambles (mentioned in four songs), rivers, dams, horses, “the pornography of my past”, his sister, his mother. All country cliches but with a big perverse twist, like the films of Todd Solondz, director of Happiness. Is it in his voice? The city boy in him?

Oh to live in the country

With a chicken and those other things

It begs the question: what other things? And why only one chicken?

Skin mags in the brambles

For the first part of my life

I thought women had orange skin

What would Willie do with this? This use of traditional tools, traditional forms welded to a new vision, as in the work of Smog and Will Oldham (Palace Brothers, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy), where does it come from? Where’s a pointer? Who started the post-modern twist on the folk tale?

Guess who. In 1968 Bob Dylan put out an album called John Wesley Harding. There was a 19th-century outlaw called John Wesley Hardin. Dylan added the “g”. And there’s your first clue. Two years earlier Dylan had dropped Blonde on Blonde on the world, a surrealistic, drugged-out, electric rock circus. In the late 60s people were still digesting it, waiting for the next instalment, part two. What they got was the strangest and most singular album Dylan has ever released.

John Wesley Harding was 12 songs of form – country rock and Elizabethan ballads – done in a way that sounded like form but wasn’t. Maybe it was all that mind expansion of 1964 to 1966, or maybe it was just his innate way of playing nothing straight. But these folk songs, when you listened to them, were mighty strange and very, very beautiful. “All Along the Watchtower” is one. The language was 19th-century arcane and there were jump cuts in the narrative, as if Dylan had waylaid verses and just carried on. The music is sparse – drums, bass, one acoustic guitar, a harmonica – and the album is as much about what’s left out as what’s kept in. It’s in the tone of Dylan’s voice. The mock civility. A grin on the face we’ll never see. A knowingness, a playfulness, safe in the form but subverting it. This album echoed down the ages and finally found its place in the 1990s, on the broken edges of alternate country, with Oldham and Smog and a host of imitators.

And it’s on A River Ain’t Too Much to Love, with its simple truths like: “No matter how far wrong you’ve gone / You can always turn around”. This is an album that knows when to give and when to take away, brilliantly arranged, with a great mood. Strangely enough it’s a headphones album, not a big orchestral mess or a knot of electronica in your ear, but a dry dusty voice of a man in his mid-30s, a dry dusty voice crooning its message to you. The brambles, the river, the dam and the well.

Robert Forster

Robert Forster is a singer-songwriter and co-founder of The Go-Betweens. His collection of music criticism, The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll, was published in 2009.

Cover: August 2005
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