There It Is

For a decade, [B]Bill Callahan[/B]'s commitment to misery has been unmatched in the Western world....

For a decade, Bill Callahan‘s commitment to misery has been unmatched in the Western world. His songs have dodged happiness like slugs avoid salt. His eight previous albums have left a thousand chipped hearts and broken relationships trailing in their wake. The thing about Bill, though, is at least he does it with a smile.

Like labelmate [a]Will Oldham[/a], Callahan doesn’t do autobiography. When the black clouds hover above, don’t just assume they’re his. His records might be shot through with enough melancholy to sink the staunchest of optimists, but there’s always the feeling that it’s all just Bill‘s little joke.

His ninth album is his most playful to date. Written with the younger set in mind (it’s for teenagers, apparently), ‘Knock Knock’ sees Smog continue to expand their sound beyond the uncomfortable and stark folk of their early recordings. Equal parts Leonard Cohen and The Velvet Underground, it confirms just what a unique songwriter Callahan has become.

You still get the restrained acoustics and self-lacerating observations (“Too many people have crumbled apart in my hands” – ‘I Could Drive Forever’), but they’re now embellished by such diversions as the ‘Sweet Jane’-strum of ‘Cold Blooded Old Times’ and the deadweight riffing of ‘Held’. Meanwhile, for the album’s epic seven-minute centrepiece ‘Hit The Ground Running’, Callahan submerges the Chicago Children’s Choir under an avalanche of fluttering strings and space-guitar drones.

Lyrically too, ‘Knock Knock’ is as extraordinary as ever. It’s not the subject matter (failed love, alienation, talking to squirrels) that stands out, rather the settings Callahan gives it. Consistently bucolic, he doesn’t stalk urban streets so much as stumble down muddy country lanes. And as always he does so with a lightness of touch which belies the heavy sadness of much of the music, whether it’s the knowing self-reference of ‘Teenage Spaceships’ (“I was a teenage smog”) or the picture of Callahan as lifesaver on ‘River Guard’.

Gloomy in intent, but hilarious in execution, ‘Knock Knock’ is close to being the perfect Smog album. Somewhere, you can bet, Bill‘s smiling about that.