Smog - Wild Love
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
In the early days, Bill Callahan was a lot more charismatic. The trademark deadpan delivery was countered by bursts of bizarre and unexpected humour, and the word 'droll' was far from the tongue when listening to his initial and mid-period releases. On the one hand, a strange kid with a crappy guitar and an unsettling baritone, on the other an astute story teller with a sharp gift for capturing the depths of human emotion, Callahan's persona, augmented by his home made artwork, was effortlessly enigmatic and consistently intriguing. From the earliest, most primitive beginnings(Macrame Gunplay), Callahan began etching out a solid discography of mildly psychotic anthems and odes, most with a refreshing disregard for the conventions of the singer songwriter tradition (or the perception that guitars must be tuned.)
To those around at the time, Smog truly was a largely undiscovered but influential player in the then nascent lo-fi scene. On the 1988 tape release "Cow," Smog showed a dexterity for experimental guitar work that preceded the early 90's American noise bands; Sewn to the sky was a watershed moment of darkly humorous confessional storytelling; on Forgotten Foundation he told of dictators raping and pillaging remote island communities alongside almost unintelligible overdriven screaming about how his band was "just like the Ramones" and everything he did was "just rock'n'roll." Significantly less jaded and infinitely more creative within his limitations, the early Smog records showed the timeless songwriting potential that reared his magnificent mid career three album run of Wild Love, Red Apple Falls, andKnock Knock. But there was something significantly rawer and less calculated about the pre-Red Apple Falls output that he has never really recaptured. To this day I consider Burning Kingdom and Kicking a Couple Around two of the finest singer songwriter EP's released, displaying undeniable melodic gifts as well as a brutal observational honesty and an uncanny knack for understanding the more negative machinations of the family structure. But, before the benefit of hindsight and a steady paying job...
The realisation I had found the mysterious misanthrope I had been seeking in my listening hit when I heard 1993's Julius Caesar. It was a time when Lou Barlow's stoned, teary eyed musings began to wear, Malkmus's detachment started to chafe and Bachmann's anger began to suggest to me only that he should cease drinking. The year was 1996, I was 15 and searching for a new indie rock icon to soothe the grey awkwardness of small town Australian life. Soon after hearing Julius Caesar I desperately began to hope that if I ever walked down the aisle, it would be with someone who would consent to have "My Wedding" as the theme - Callahan's frenzied nylon string strumming over a resonant, almost morbid cello line and his aggrieved mantra "I'm gonna be drunk / So drunk / At your wedding." The album moved and disturbed me in ways I had never previously experienced listening to the Anglo-angst music that constituted my musical upbringing. But it wasn't the real epiphany that Bill granted me. Coming into this scene of lo-fi music during its inevitable glut period, 1996, I was unaware where to go from here. Hearing only from an older friend that "Bathysphere" was one of the better songs he had ever penned, I picked up Wild Love soon after my experience with Julius Caesar. It was soon apparent I was listening to his most diverse and fully realised LP to date - and this opinion still stands. Running the gamut from chamber pop to sublime sad bastard ruminations to stories of menstruation to questionable meditations about children set to sirens and chimes, I was floored.
The record begins with said track "Bathysphere", a tale of the need to go deep under the ocean, away from the world into submerged isolation, concluding with the saddened realisation that the parental powers that be killed the dream before he even reached the sea. What could be seen as an explanation for the near agoraphobia expressed in much of Smog's work, the track is set to steady programmed drums, muted orchestral stabs effortlessly mirrored by back-up vocals and Callahan's trademark dramatic single string fret runs, running at a steady pace until the lines "when I was seven / My father said to me you can't swim / And I never dreamed of the sea again" and the song's breakdown. "Bathysphere," while holding the unique distinction of living up to it's hype, also showcased Callahan's craft in relating in the first person stories that could be about anyone, and in doing so reinforced the feeling I had with his earlier releases, that I was in a room hearing a confession I wasn't meant to.
The intensity doesn't let up with the 80-second title track, a sombre three note cello melody entering over the sounds of an ice storm as Callahan sings "wild love / Somebody shot down my wild love" to devastating effect as a second string melody descends, circled by ethereal chimes. "Sweet Smog Children's" frightening, ambiguous lyrics become all the more unsettling with the insistent, tuneless chimes and random keyboard stabs and sirens that frame his words "Sweet Smog children / I just want to touch you / Like the invisible man / To be untouchable / Like only a child can." Again Bill effortlessly moved me and simultaneously became a man I yearned to see in concert but wouldn't let near family members. Callahan's unique placement of his lyrical messages in fitting, eclectic musical contexts is one of his greatest abilities, and seems to have only waned with his most recent releases. Kicking a Couple Around was a bare boned acoustic album full of profound emotional-sexual reflections, with most of the tunes set to a few chords, in doing so squaring the focus on his confessions with incredible effect. This practice is enacted on Wild Love's sixth track "Limited Capacity" as Callahan sings "I painted myself into a corner again / 'cause I didn't like the colour of my floors / After you walked all over them" over a simple three chord piano melody he would later reprise for his next LP’s "Red Apples."
"It's Rough," one of the definite highlights of the Smog oeuvre, showcases Callahan at his resigned, melancholic best, imploring the subject of the song to stay away from him, lest they be dragged down to his mired state. Imploring his significant other to have a drink, ("I don't know why you ever stopped anyway") gentle droning strings intone over three beautifully intertwining guitars and a brisk drum machine rhythm as Callahan illustrates his hopelessness by telling his lover "Well my best friend / Took a bullet through his eye / First he had a patch / Now he's got a glass eye / He says sometimes he wishes / Both his eyes were glass." Rarely, if ever, has Callahan been this moving. "Sleepy Joe" follows, possibly the only track on Wild Lovethat hints at the transition to the psychotic alt-rockabilly anthems of his turn of century albums. This is of a higher quality than the later efforts, telling the tale of a hibernating recluse over rolling toms and manic, fuzzed guitar. The use of field recordings on "Sleepy Joe" and various songs throughout, combined with Callahan's embrace of the studio and more wide ranging, eclectic instrumentation illustrates a musicianship capable of keeping pace with his increasingly profound vocal tales that reach an obvious peak during Wild Love and its two follow ups.
I've had a lot of hilarious moments showing feminist friends various Smog songs, but none strike a chord like "Be Hit". Over a buzzing sloppy nylon string Callahan reflects "Every girl I've ever loved / Has wanted to be hit / Every girl I've ever loved / Has left me 'cause I wouldn't do it." Usually before I am set upon by Germaine's droogs I am saved by the standout track from Wild Love, "Prince Alone in the Studio" an undeniable classic and the fullest realisation of Smog's immense chamber pop potential. One of Smog's longest tracks, it sets punctuated acoustic picking against soaring overdriven guitars, melodramatic strings and bombastic percussion, the strength of the arrangement almost taking attention away from his hilarious, respectful ode to Prince's solitary focus on musical perfection. The overwrought finale is definitely one of his finest moments, one that I expect the artist himself to be flattered by.
Wild Love’s synthesis of Smog's early, maniacally creative psychosis with the more considered arrangements and reflections of his later work created an album of enviable depth, humour and melodic intricacy. A unique moment in his career, I am yet to be as affected by any of his subsequent (or prior) releases. Though 1997's country inflected Red Apple Falls was impeccably executed and 1999's Knock Knock a spastic triumph, Wild Love remains a high water mark for all the genres it travels through.
By: Hans H. Uhad
Published on: 2003-09-01