There’s never been a party quite like this. Towards the end of ‘Teenage Spaceship’, another bone-dry exercise in self-mythologising, Bill Callahan begins to whoop, the most comically joyless sound on earth. It’s like the bark of a sarcastic coyote, a call-to-arms for rock’s cruellest, most ghoulish heartstring mangler, a noise imbued with a degree of mocking hypocrisy that even his spiritual forefathers, [a]Leonard Cohen[/a] and Lou Reed, would baulk at.
Sometimes, Callahan behaves like he holds the entire world in contempt. The massive and fine stockpile of songs he has built up through the ’90s initially seem traumatised and vulnerable, but there’s a vicious twist at the dead centre of Smog. As you soak up the pathos, are spun out and touched by these micro-dramas of everyday tragedy, it becomes apparent that Callahan is toying with your emotions. Like his compadre Will Oldham, he’s a merchant of bogus candour and unreliable autobiography. At the precise moment you’re moved by, say, the confessional clarity of ‘Held’, you look up at the stage and Callahan‘s there, implacable, almost translucent; deep inside, laughing at your gullibility.
It’s impossible not to be manipulated, though. Most of this year’s ‘Knock Knock’ – the best album of ’99 thus far, if you’re asking – is stripped down from baroque flurries to stark pulses, to a kind of bleached blues. Smog songs unfold with stealth and low animal cunning, a music of tiny but profound evolutions. At times, on ‘It’s Rough’ and the extraordinary ‘River Guard’, the music’s barely there, leaving Callahan to deliver his cold poetry deadpan and exposed, incredibly affecting in spite of itself. Elsewhere, the clattering high-tension freak-out that closes Velvety chugger ‘Cold Blooded Old Times’ suggests he’s finally discovering pleasure in pure sound, beyond the minimal requirements of the song: a revelation that’s like a lo-fi facsimile of Dylan discovering the sacred power of electricity.
[I]”They don’t come much stranger”[/I], he sings in the self-explanatory ‘I Was A Stranger’, perverting the lonesome outsider posturing of country to his own insidious ends, and eventually the way of Smog becomes clear. This is music that lulls you into a false sense of insecurity, then really unsettles you. And Bill Callahan is the funny, nasty, possibly even genuinely sad party guest with the capacity to profoundly disturb everyone around him while doing very little indeed. During ‘Bathysphere’, over the top of crypto-classical piano flourishes, it sounds like the bringer of death, pestilence and all-round bad vibes has arrived to destroy salon society just by panting. In other words: this man is evil, and not to be trusted – cherish him.