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“And the rain washed the price/Off of our windshield,” sing Bill Callahan and guest vocalist Sarabeth Tucek on “Driving,” the penultimate song on (Smog)’s sublime new album, Supper. In two linesthe song’s only lyricsCallahan tells us everything we need to know about his narrators’ rootless, secondhand lives. Compared with this miracle of compression, Raymond Carver comes off looking like Proust.
Then again, fans have come to expect such miracles from Callahan, the lo-fi devotee with the deadpan baritonethink Lou Reed sans New York accentwho’s released well over a dozen recordings under the name (Smog) since the late ’80s. The footloose Callahan, who was born in Silver Spring, Md., but has lived in more places than any five journeyman athletes, may just be rock’s premier chronicler of the peripatetic and the peripheral. Callahan’s songs are peopled by unremarkable, anonymous men of potentially violent tendencies whose stories are as strange to them as they are to you and me. “Well I never thought I’d be/One of those men/With pin-ups on the wall/For all to see/I thought that was just mechanics” he sings on “Strayed,” on 2000’s Dongs of Sevotion, and there’s no hiding the surprise of a man confronted by the sad reality of his own life.
But lest you get the idea that (Smog) is one of those musical experiences best taken in conjunction with Prozac, know this: Callahan, who currently hangs his hat in Chicago, has his playful side, too. 1999’s relatively upbeat Knock Knock featured a cheery children’s choir on several cuts, and the morbidly thrilling Dongs of Sevotion brought us the surreal “Bloodflow,” featuring a squad of cheerleaders enthusiastically chanting, “No time for a tête-à-tête-y/Can I borrow your machete/Hey, hey!”
Supper finds Callahan occupying a relatively sereneby (Smog) standards, anywayemotional space. You won’t find any cheerleaders or children’s choirs here. Nor will you be subjected to anything quite so grimly disturbing as Dongs’ “Cold Discovery,” with its hair-raising “Well, I can hold a woman down on a hardwood floor.” This time out, Callahan aims right down the middleat least with his lyrics. Although (Smog)’s basic soundone part alt-country, one part singer-songwriter, two parts Velvet Undergroundhas never varied much, Callahan tends to tinker with the trimmings. On Supper, he favors pedal-steel guitars and even the occasional banjo, making the album more countryish in feel than his last few efforts. As usual, though, he mixes things up some, giving us not only some nice blasts of jagged Neil Young-ish guitar but also some Stonesy country-rock ‘n’ rollicking and even a little taste of Dylan.
There isn’t a weak song on Supper, which may account for this early-disc boast: “Move the tables and the chairs aside/And give me some room/I’m going to show you something/You won’t soon forget.” The album opens with “Feather by Feather,” a beautiful duet with Tucek in the Gram Parsons-Emmylou Harris mold. With its mournful steel guitar and subtle organ backing, the track is a regular down-home snuggle-upper, albeit with some odd lyrics. It’s not every country classic that includes lines as Flatt-and-Scruggs-out-weird as “It’s Ali vs. Clay/Both pummeling away/A champ always fights themself.”
“Feather by Feather” is followed by another duet, “Butterflies Drowned in Wine,” but the couple that comes to mind on this one is John Doe and Exene Cervenka. Combining an introductory guitar riff that evokes Heart, a few pedal-steel interludes as cosmically American as anything ol’ Gram ever came up with, and Callahan and Tucek singing about “temporary sister brotherhood,” the song finds our hero “headed into town/Where up is up and down and down/None of this fumbling around.” Furthermore, he’s prepared to “bust up a sidewalk” if that’s what it’ll take “to get people to gather round.” The music reflects the lyrics’ restlessness, moving through at least one genre for each of its four-and-a-half minutes.
If “Butterflies Drowned in Wine” wants to paint the town red, “Morality” is an ethics lecture delivered by a madman, a meditation on adultery sung by someone who, it turns out, isn’t even married. “I could kiss you,” sings Callahan. “But hey,” he continues, “What would my wife say/What would my wife say/If I was married.” Not that relevancy matters much, “Morality” being such a plucky little number, with pulverizing guitars that’ll make you forget all about such abstractions as ethics. “Ambition,” similarly, is pure six-string menace, a midtempo rocker about a fellow who never uses “doors no mores” but prefers to climb through windows, who “just dropped by to see you as I’m on my way.”
But “Truth Serum”which could just as well have been titled “Son of Visions of Johanna,” so happily does it evoke the spirit of Blonde on Blondemay go down in history as (Smog)’s finest hour. With its strummed guitars, brushed drums, and vaguely martial rhythm, the song moves along at a simultaneously stately and jaunty pacewhich ought to be impossible but paradoxically isn’t, such is the sheer propulsive sweep of the thing. Callahan even seems to have inherited Dylan’s knack for putting Zen koans into song: “Well then what is love?” asks Tucek, to which Callahan responds, “Love is an object kept in an empty box.” To which Tucek replies, “How can something be in an empty box?” “Well well give me another shot,” says Callahan, “of that truth serum.”
Almost as wonderful is “Our Anniversary,” a pretty little number that’s almost too touchingthat is, until you realize that the married fellow doing the talking isn’t outside just to look at the stars; he’s getting ready to jump in the car and drive away. We’ve all felt it, that longing to walk away from our own lives and not look back. Ah, but “You’ve hidden my keys,” Callahan sings. “This is one anniversary you’re spending with me/I slide in the front seat/The driver’s side/To hotwire and hightail crosses my mind/But still in the driveway/Fixed like the stars.”
It’s a very short list of artists in the pop world who have so clearly conveyed how difficult it is just to be a human being. Randy Newman comes to mind; Randy Newman’s done it. Bill Callahan’s doing it, too, and with Supper, he’s given us a set of tunes with as much humanity as Newman’s own. CP