Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Bill Callahan: Sex, Death, and Rough Travel

On July 20th, Bill Callahan, the artist formerly known as Smog and (Smog), will release a work of literary fiction entitled Letters For Emma Bowlcut via Drag City. It's not a surprise that this work is getting a regular catalogue number (in this case, DC268)—Callahan is one of the few songwriters out there whose skills warrant a collection of fiction. Beginning with his earliest work, his songs have often bristled with simple and, usually, dark narratives which are rarely explained in full but nevertheless loom over the proceedings. His ability to create a stark character sketch in just a few lines is uncanny (for example, the entire lyrics of Julius Caesar's bleak "Your Wedding": I remember / Entering you / Entering you / I'm gonna be drunk, so drunk at your wedding). Indeed, he has even published sketches; in 2004, he published a series of sketchbooks entitled The Death's Head Drawings, Women, and Ballerina Scratchpad. From the titles, and from the rest of his excellent body of work, it is clear that sex and death have given his art plenty of material, and his more recent albums have expanded the palette to include geopolitical allegory ("I Feel Like The Mother Of The World" from 2005's A River Ain't Too Much To Love) and musings on religion (the stunning "Faith/Void" from 2009's Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle).

What Letters For Emma Bowlcut will entail remains to be seen; in this interview he calls it "an epic poem in the form of letters." Like many others, I will probably be tempted to see this work as some sort of literary reaction to his break-up with singer Joanna Newsom, another artist with similar skills in language and narrative. But an artist's life and and an artists' art need not overlap—if Callahan had lived all the creepy characters in his songs, he'd probably be in jail. If anything, we ought to consider this "epic" another example of his increasing artistic range. Let's hope he will continue to set his stories to music.

As an example of Callahan's skewed sources of inspiration, here's "Rock Bottom Riser", originally on A River Ain't Too Much To Love. This version is from Rough Travel For A Rare Thing, a good live album which came out in March 2010. If my interpretation is correct, this song is a loving pledge of devotion sung from the perspective of a repentant narrator—who seems to be none other than Gollum from the Lord Of The Rings trilogy (!). How's that for epic?

Bill Callahan, "Rock Bottom Riser" (live):

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