Find the River

Bill Callahan discovers new sounds and voices -- and cleans up with Chloe Sevigny -- on Smog's latest album

Jul 27, 2005 at 4:00 am
Chloë Sevigny, wearing a maid's outfit, cleans a hotel room in the new Smog video. Her right eye is bandaged. She's vacuuming. A television's on in the room, and a newscaster speaks over images of explosions. Sevigny moves in a mournful daze as the clean-cut anchor -- played by Smog's sole member, Bill Callahan -- reports the song's first lyrics with a furrowed brow: "Whether or not there is any type of god, I'm not supposed to say," he says as if he's the final authority. "And today, I don't really care."

The song, called "I Feel Like the Mother of the World," is from his newest release -- Smog's thirteenth since 1989 -- A River Ain't Too Much to Love. It gallops along like the Velvet Underground's "All Tomorrow's Parties," with a nearly Phil Spectorian bombast. (Callahan, in fact, shares Lou Reed's languid talk-sing vocal style, although he sounds less like Nico.) But where "Parties" mourns nightlife vacuity, Smog is thinking about war.

Sevigny enters the next hotel room. Callahan's on the TV there as well: He's reporting on the fights he and his sister used to have that only ended in "tears and sides." At this point his wall of composure has completely collapsed; the anchorman is on the verge of a breakdown. Sevigny's shown looking in a mirror unpeeling the bandage from her damaged eye. She looks ruined. Callahan holds his head in his hands: "My mother, my poor mother would say it does not matter...just stop fighting. Oh, I feel like the mother of the world, with two children."

"Mother" is a huge song -- one of Smog's best -- and is an equally big departure for the artist. Most of Callahan's albums poke along quietly while he sings about life's bummers and occasional joys, and a mostly minimal band paints loose, repetitive, guitar-based landscapes. Early records, including his classic 1993 album, Julius Caesar, were defiantly lo-fidelity affairs documented on four-tracks that seemed plugged into his pillow.

His topics have also tended to stay in the claustrophobic indoors -- often in his head -- where he can be found lying awake at night "getting off on the pornography of my past, lighting matches and dropping them into a wet glass." But on River he's discovered the space surrounding the room. Something has changed.

"It's a bunch of things," Callahan explains over the phone from Austin, where he lives. "I don't know if I can even touch on all of them. But it's possibly because I got a new classical guitar."

In the past Callahan never considered himself much of a guitar player -- "No one ever came up to me and said, 'Wow, I love your guitar playing,'" he admits. But his new instrument pushed him in an unknown direction. "The neck is so wide that it's almost like a piano. It made me think about every note instead of chords. Physically I feel different when I'm playing guitar now. It takes thinking about it more."

You can hear this shift in "The Well," which moves like a tumbleweed, with guitar, bass, drum and harmonica; it could be a lost Townes Van Zandt song. Still, it was only partly because of this guitar acquisition that River -- which was recorded at Willie Nelson's Pedernales Studio in Austin -- arrives after the longest break of Smog's career.

"I think I had a little of what they call writer's block," explains Callahan of the two-year absence. "That was sort of combined with wondering whether I should keep making records or not at all. I wanted this record to be a really good one. So I took my time with it until it was right."

He hasn't always had the luxury to be so relaxed. After a couple of cassette-only releases, Callahan signed with Chicago's Drag City records -- early home to, among others, Pavement, the Palace Brothers, Stereolab and Royal Trux -- in 1991. A few years later, he decided to take the leap and make a living out of music.

"It sounds really corny," he admits, "but I was living on the East Coast and I read On the Road by Jack Kerouac. I decided to drive to California with about $8,000 I'd saved up, moved in with a friend of mine and told myself that when the eight grand had run out I'd have to be making it in music." When Julius Caesar, came out, he was down to $100. Then his first royalty check arrived. "It was $300 or something, and that was it."

Callahan hasn't lost his youthful wanderlust, however. In "The Well," he sings of a day spent wandering the woods, where -- like the protagonist of Haruki Murakami's remarkable novel The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles -- he stumbles across an abandoned well.

Murakami sends his man down into the well to suffer alone. Callahan, though, simply peers into the abyss and utters a tentative "Hello?" Where in the past you'd expect Callahan to follow the query with an intimate confession, or recall memories "that turn your bones to glass," the songwriter is much more concise -- and funny -- in 2005: "Fuck all y'all," he shouts, and a drop of water lands on his back.

What exactly this all means is vague. But what's clear is that Bill Callahan-as-Smog, after fifteen-plus years of making music, has crossed over an important threshold. He's broken the third wall, breached the barrier that separates the anchorman and the maid and entered a place where the room and the vast, complicated world surrounding it are one.