For such an evocative songwriter, Bill Callahan always gets painted a bland shade of gray. In print, his name and his music come modified by the usual synonyms of introspection: "miserabilist," "chronically depressed," "depressive lonerism," the unpardonable "sadcore." This is likely because Callahan's albums--all released under the band name Smog, though he's the only constant--are filled with understated plaints about bitter relationships in various states of decay. His persona doesn't help matters much, either. Onstage, he comes off as some strange combination of shy and sardonic, carrying himself as though a stiff breeze might not only blow him away, but shatter him into thousands of pieces. He also hates interviews--he would only do them by fax for a while--and, consequently, does not often shine in them.
All of which means that the line on Callahan has become predictable and, in many ways, inaccurate. He is easily corralled alongside a little clique of introspective indie songwriters that includes Chan Marshall (a.k.a. Cat Power), Elliott Smith, Will Oldham, the Silver Jews, Lou Barlow, and Edith Frost; his lineage is easily traced back to such archetypes as Nick Drake--fragile, melancholy, literate, bitter. Someone whose records evoke insularity as easily as they require it. Someone whose shtick is less about acting out than acting in. Someone who, when categorized as such, can look horribly precious on paper--enough to make you long for anything a little less . . . self-involved.
But though Callahan's records do bear the superficial marks of his reputation, they have lately far exceeded it: moody, yes, but also increasingly expansive, increasingly accomplished, increasingly great. From inauspicious beginnings, he has emerged as a remarkably powerful songwriter, and that growth seems to have coincided with an ambition to incorporate divergent styles and baroque arrangements into his work--1997's excellent Red Apple Falls features everything from horn sections to pedal steel, and the equally accomplished Knock Knock even enlists a children's choir. Couple all that with his eye for lyric detail and his sense of humor--which couldn't be more dry if he roasted it over a bonfire--and his caricature gives way to inviting complexities.
"The whole depressive thing--it's just something that's easy," says Callahan, sounding bored on the phone from New York. "Something that most people want to think. It makes them feel better. It's kind of a dismissal. I think there's a lot more than that going on, but it's the easiest thing to say, the easiest way for people to name me so that they can forget about it."
Unlike his music, Callahan's conversation tends to be guarded. He won't let slip many autobiographical details, and he has a tendency to counter questions with questions: "That's a little personal, isn't it?" This much is known: He was raised in the small town of Pasadena, Maryland--halfway between Baltimore and Annapolis--a folksy, rural area that seems to have been touched in spirit by the neighboring South. Not surprisingly, he characterizes his youth as solitary.
"Um," Callahan says in his characteristic deadpan, "I had a lot of time to myself, which kind of made me someone who spends a lot of time not doing something--like if you said, 'What did you do today?' I might not have an answer--but it made me ruminate. It made me a ruminator." And then, as if worried that he might be playing into stereotype, he adds: "I watched a lot of TV." To hear him tell it, his other major cultural touchstones included To Kill a Mockingbird (the first book he ever read all the way through; he was eighteen) and Kiss--"for a month or something. I went through all the usual phases." Callahan tried writing songs at sixteen but waited for four years to record anything, debuting when he was twenty with the 1988 cassette Macrame Gunplay.
He moved around some after his days in Pasadena: to Sacramento, California ("I'm trying to forget it"), to a small South Carolina town called Prosperity. ("Ironically, it was a town of 1,000.") He continued to record all the while, releasing a string of no-fi cassettes that evinced smarts, ambition, and perhaps a bit too much forced obscurity--of sound quality, of content, of ability. 1993's Julius Caesar was his first breakthrough; that was the record on which Callahan truly began the move from style to substance, writing good songs that he wasn't afraid to hide. Two years later, Wild Love was another leap forward; not only was the songwriting focused and the production clear, but he began to experiment successfully--"Goldfish Bowl" sounds less like bedroom brooding than Anglo synth-pop. His irony and bile also began to peak: "Every girl I've ever loved/Has wanted to be hit/Every girl I've ever loved/Has left me/Because I wouldn't do it," he sang, perhaps helping explain (one way or the other) why relationships never quite work out in his songs.
The Doctor Came at Dawn (1996) probably represents Callahan's most severe soundtrack of personal desperation. Spare and bitter, its songs conjure closed scenes that hum and bleed with intense sensory details. On "All Your Women Things," the album's most piercing song, Callahan completes a surreal inventory of a seven-year-old romance's detritus: "All your bridges and bras/Your cotton and gauze/All your buckles and straps/Releases and traps/All your screws and false nails/Oriental winks and Egyptian veils . . . How could I ignore/Your left breast/Your right breast."
Able to find something of significance--usually the wrong kind--in the most minute of details and the smallest of gestures, Callahan had arrived at his endgame. He'd done sparse to perfection--what next?
Enter Chicago guitarist-producer Jim O'Rourke. A prolific avant-gardist with a taste for such pop composers as Jack Nitzsche and Van Dyke Parks, O'Rourke took the helm for Red Apple Falls, adding a stately classicist-pop touch to some numbers and facilitating Callahan's ambitions on others.
"When I first heard Bill's music," O'Rourke says, "I liked the honesty of it, I could sense it. There was an authenticity to it that was immediately intriguing. I appreciate anyone who can say very profound, very true things in a way that can be accessed by anybody. It's not wordplay for wordplay's sake--he can access feelings that we all have in an understated but potent way."
Callahan is characteristically wry about working with O'Rourke--when asked about the mood in the studio, he says, "I only have one mood. It was that one. That's why I write songs. All the other moods have to come out somehow." But the producer, whether by accident or not, ended up being on hand for Smog's most expansive record yet, an album ranging from subtly evocative ("The Morning Paper") to downright jaunty ("Ex-Con") to somewhere in between (the country moves of "I Was a Stranger").
Red Apple Falls won raves, eliciting something close to fawning wonder by The New Yorker--which looked back at The Doctor Came at Dawn long enough to dub it "a miracle of pop minimalism"--but the new Knock Knock might be Callahan's finest hour yet. Ranging wildly from odd folk vignettes to rock stomps, the record shows its maker to be in a surprisingly free-spirited mood. It starts out with "Let's Move to the Country," an idealistic, romantic call for a new start; layered with multitracked, breathy voices and punctuated by a cello, the song exudes the fresh air of its subject. And even though Callahan can't quite follow through--"Let's start a/Let's have a," he sings without ever completing his thoughts--you can sense his mood throughout, from the lighthearted, sweet spaciousness of "Teenage Spaceship" ("I was a teenage spaceship . . . people thought my windows were stars") to "Held," which is practically optimistic in its letting go: "I lay back in the tall grass/And let the ants cover me . . . For the first time in my life/I let myself be held/Like a big, old baby." And then there are the kids--an entire chorus of them, in fact--singing along with "Hit the Ground Running" and "No Dancing."
"Kids are always difficult in the studio," O'Rourke says. "You're trying to get a good take, and many times the kid just can't sing, so you gotta figure out a way to get them to 'take a break' without letting on that is what you're doing. So I bribed the ice cream truck to ride by whenever I called it. Each time, after I made the call, I'd ask a certain kid, 'Oh, wouldn't you love an ice cream cone?' Worked every time."
Callahan, however, refused to resort to such trickery.
"You can't criticize children's singing," he says. "It's a crowd pleaser."
Tongues and cheeks notwithstanding, Knock finds Callahan moving ever further from the crowd-fearing stereotypes that dog him. Before it was recorded, he moved to Chicago, which has become a sort of indie-rock ground zero over the past couple of years. But don't chalk Knock up to his new environment. "The move to Chicago had nothing to do with bands at all," he says. "I don't want to hang out with bands. I don't get anything from that sort of environment." Better to find other reasons for the record's success. Most superficially, there's (again) the stylistic range: "Held" is propelled by its acid-rock guitar riff; "No Dancing" offsets its distorted guitar with the kids and full orchestration on its chorus; and "Cold Blooded Old Times" is as close to the Velvet Underground as he'll likely get. More importantly, there's a cohesiveness--of tone, of quality--that elevates Knock Knock's breadth from the work of a dilettante to a work of confidence, grace, and skill.
"Knock Knock is a record about movement, and that's an upbeat topic," says Callahan. "It's more rhythmic, more open. Red Apple Falls was more dreamlike, more about consciousness, and what it's like to be a sentient being."
The record is definitely about going somewhere, but just don't ask Callahan where that might be--or what he might have been running from. Characteristically careful and shielded, he'll hold onto that mystery.
"I was getting out of a . . . I believe I was getting out of something."
Smog. 10 p.m., Monday, March 15, the Grog Shop, 1765 Coventry Road, Cleveland Heights, 216-321-5588, $7, Ticketmaster 216-241-5555.