Bill Callahan (Smog): Discography Review

To celebrate Bill's forthcoming Gold Record, here's a rundown of each of his past studio albums, from his earliest days as Smog, and my accompanying thoughts...

Here, also, is a tentative list of my top 10 BC songs:

1. Palimpsest
2. Red Apples
3. Hangman Blues
4. Wine-Stained Lips
5. Came Blue
6. To Be of Use
7. All Your Women Things
8. I Could Drive Forever
9. I Break Horses
10. Rococo Zephyr

Smog - Red Apple Falls
Acerbic and unsettling, yet deeply introspective: a study of privation and its quiet distortions.

Favourites: To Be of Use, Red Apples, Blood Red Bird, The Morning Paper, Finer Days

Smog - Accumulation: None
Its greatest fault is the lack of "Wine-Stained Lips", the B-side to 1993's "A Hit".
Smog - Kicking a Couple Around
"I Break Horses" alone makes this EP a classic, a song written for Bill's friend to explain how a man could so carelessly leave her after a one-night-stand.
Cynthia Dall - Untitled
An essential listen for any Bill Callahan or Smog fan—a criminally underappreciated journey through Cynthia's troubled and acrid reflections.

(I'm considering this a Smog LP, or, at least, a Smog-related project, for the purposes of this list. Bill, it should be noted, contributes to two tracks here).
Smog - The Doctor Came at Dawn
The Doctor Came at Dawn is perhaps the most mournful record of the Smog era, so awkwardly painful at times that it can make you wince—or maybe shiver, even sob. A conceptual song cycle, Bill vividly chronicles the evolution of a doomed relationship, from the mistrust of its bitter beginnings to the deep concavity it leaves in its dissolution. Bill often trespasses the invisible line of "respectful distance" expected between artist and listener, refusing to suppress his observations and reactions, as acerbic as they can be. It makes his oblique lyricism, in its uncompromising specificity, infinitely more human than that of most of his contemporaries. The incorporation of a string section lends the LP a sense of reverence and sweeping tragedy—and not with relation to the songs themselves, but with regard to the speaker's thematic conceptualization of his lover (who may or may not be Chan Marshall of Cat Power). As a portrait of turbulence and sometimes-scarring trauma, A Doctor Came At Dawn is an affecting and honest character study: a record that refuses to sacrifice the power of its own disquieting ambiguity.

Favorites: Hangman Blues, All Your Women Things, You Moved In
Smog - Burning Kingdom
Bill and Cynthia, together, can really do no wrong.
Smog - Knock Knock
Knock Knock is hardly the first Smog record to dabble in wit and bleak humor, but it's certainly the first to do so with such diverse textural atmospheres. Like 1996's The Doctor Came At Dawn, Knock Knock seems to chronicle the development of a failed relationship, but in contrast to the former's premeditated and pervasive doom, Knock Knock actually navigates a real sense of possibility ("Let's move to the country, just you and me") before its (inevitable) decay. It makes the heartbreak ever the more palpable.

As its cover art, with its distant thunder, might suggest, Knock Knock replaces the fuzz and hiss of Smog's earliest experiments with a spaciousness that re-contextualizes Bill's lyrics as ongoing contemplations, letting the androcentrism so characteristic to Bill's storytelling give way to a more mature resolution: "I'm left only with love for you / you did what was right to do", he laments on the record's closing track "Left Only With Love". It's like witnessing a dying glacier, once so immovable and impenetrable, finally thawing out in the spring sun... What's left is a relief, an impression of a landscape; Bill's observational prowess finally overpowers his bitterness ("the bitterness has brought him down, I had to leave the country", as Bill himself admits). Which is not to say, of course, that Bill's artistic impulses towards the latter entirely disappear—but they're given space, dimension, consideration. They're accompanied by a more expansive introspection.

Read More:
Smog - A River Ain't Too Much To Love
More and more, this is becoming a really cherished period of Callahan's career, for me.
Bill Callahan - Gold Record
Bill Callahan's 18th studio album, his Gold Record, is an equally reflective and sharp collection of short stories that juxtapose the simple desires of domestic life—the pleasure of eating breakfast, sleeping in, finally meeting those neighbors you've been avoiding, "living like a cowboy"—with the anything-but-simple realities that often belie and contextualize those pleasures: and so even as Bill pursues the romantic for its own sake, its realm of possibility is forced or coalesced back into a kind dream-space or imaginative world. Bill dwells near, and finds an enigmatic comfort in, this boundary between desire and circumstance—"it's all one river crossing", he writes, on "Cowboy"—fully realizing the risk or conflation inherent in his idealism, in "the moon that can make a false love feel true" ("35"), and yet also choosing, in his own reflective way, to chase the fleeting shadows of that love anyway, as spectral as they might seem.

Read more:
Smog - Dongs of Sevotion
Dongs of Sevotion is the most strangely elusive record, for me, in Bill's catalog; when I first heard it, I was immediately put-off by the detached, cold synths of the opener, "Justice Aversion", and didn't feel pulled in by the record's more introspective moments either... Now, however, having familiarized myself with Bill's music, especially his earlier material, much more deeply, I feel like I can understand this record a little better. From its cheeky title to its absurdly austere album art, Smog's eighth record is all about the play of adjacency and juxtaposition: like all of his best work, it's unafraid to illuminate even the most unsavory parts of its narrator's psyche (and to continually "avert", or defer, any kind of moral "justice" for that character), but that gravity is continually recontextualised, whether by by faux-country strumming patterns ("Dress Sexy at My Funeral"); what sounds like some strange "bouncy ball" effect as well as the cheerleader collaboration, on "Bloodflow"; or, indeed, those cold, icy synths on "Justice Aversion". There's a prying sense of experimentation that calls back to Smog's earliest days, and in a more palpable way than any Smog album since since Wild Love. "The Hard Road", in particular, with a little more lo-fi fuzz, could easily fit on to Julius Caesar.

The bass, also, plays a more structural role than seen before on any Callahan releases, anchoring quite a few of these mid-album compositions, in particular, "Easily Led" and "Distance". The understated and repetitive guitar work, while still present in abundance, no longer seems so crucial to Bill's songwriting, and while that means many cuts here lose their arresting sense (enactment) of paralysis, the newfound motion and exploratory attitude suits Dongs of Sevotion's resistance to self-aggrandizement.

Read more:
Bill Callahan - Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle
Gently unsettling, a nudge into and out of comfort as a consecrated space. The record derives its power from subtlety and atmosphere, as on the career-highlight "Rococo Zephyr", but is also exceedindly broad, from the playful chorus of "Eid Ma Clack Shaw", to the inviting "My Friend", from the tense, watery distortions and awkward piano of "Invocation to Rationation" (reminding me a bit of Sewn to the Sky and other early sonic experiments), to the gentle self-reflection on "Jim Cain" or the ruminations on religion of "Faith / Void".

Favourites: Rococo Zephyr, Jim Cain, Faith/Void, All Thoughts Are Prey to Some Beast, Too Many Birds
Least favourite: Eid Ma Clack Shaw (I guess?? Still like it a lot).
Smog - Supper
Sarabeth Tucek's vocals play off Bill's cold and staid delivery beautifully... Some of the most meandering and palatable music released under the Smog name, yet still dark in its own subtle way... A sure improvement from the drifting amble that was Rain on Lens.
Bill Callahan - Apocalypse
Simple musical palette, gorgeous instrumentation: a wonderful setting-in-motion. One of Bill's finest projects.
Bill Callahan - Dream River
Those last two tracks, "Seagull" and "Winter Road", are absolutely stunning; and yet the rest of the record—while as lyrically thoughtful and contemplative as ever—feels instrumentally tempered and restrained in such a way as to be a little too congruous, a little too mild-mannered, in the atmosphere it sets in motion. It doesn't arrest me, call me out of myself—or, as I've come to expect from Bill, challenge me—in the way Bill's best work can; though that being said, songs like "Small Planes" do reward careful, attentive listening. The flute across the LP gives it a freewheeling, improvisational energy that contrasts wonderfully with Bill's baritone.

Favorites: "Small Planes", "Seagull", "Winter Road"
Least favorite: "Javelin Unlanding"
Bill Callahan - Woke on a Whaleheart
Fantastic songwriting, as usual, but in this case belied by expansive arrangements, effervescent effects, and maximalist production. Watching Bill's more stark live performances of these tracks restores the arresting power of their warm lyricism and searching dynamics. It's clear, though, that this was a more collaborative and warm-hearted moment of Bill's life. Oh, Joanna! You and me, ranging through every new Diamond Day...
Smog - 'Neath the Puke Tree
There wasn't really any need to re-record the excellent "I Was a Stranger" from Red Apple Falls, particularly since the version on this EP mimes the original quite closely, but with a more muddy production, the addition of a country-twang slide guitar, and with Bill's vocals sounding oddly lethargic: one of the strangest performances from him in the entire Smog catalog.

Nevertheless, things quickly pick up from there. "Your Sweet Entrance", easily this EP's highlight, burns with Smog's signature dark spaciousness, a sinister lo-fi murkiness, punctuated with a precarious quiet that only adds suspense and density to the guitar loop. It even includes a high-pitched, off key whine in its middle section, suggesting a dissonance and anxiety at odds with its saccharine title.

"A Jar of Sand", originally from Bill's debut, Sewn to the Sky, does warrant a re-working in a way that "I Was a Stranger" doesn't seem to, for it is totally recontextualized here, with a painfully-detuned, murky chord progression marching along over the sound of ocean waves. It feels the most claustrophobic of the tracks here, but it will surely be of interest for fans of Smog's earliest lo-fi work.

That same poorly tuned electric guitar keeps "Orion Obscured by Stars" afloat with a two-chord minor-key progression, but also leaving the track seeming a bit too unpolished, like a demo; and that simple progression just isn't enough to justify its five and a half minutes, even in spite of its imagistic and reflective lyricism. But the emotional stakes, here, are lower than what I expect from Smog.

Closer "Coacheecayoo" is anchored by a two-note bassline (the root and third of a chord, it seems), muted drums, and Bill's voice. The drums lend the track a driving feeling that "Orion" lacked, but the intermittent guitar solos feel too rooted in the major key and the standard diatonic scale; there's a sore need of experimentation or a change in pacing.
Smog - Sewn to the Sky
A record to respect, if not to enjoy...
Smog - Rain On Lens
Meandering, maybe even a little purposeless... It really seemed that Bill was at a loss at this point in his career. It has its place, though, surely, and it's not to be forgotten. Bill the wanderer, adrift and impressionistic...
Smog - Forgotten Foundation
It has its moments, certainly, but, in its totality, can be quite a nauseating experience. Though that's the idea, probably.

Favorites: Burning Kingdom, Let Me Have That Jar Back, This Insane Cop, I'm Smiling, With a Green Complexion
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January 2021 Playlist