13 May, 2013

CU Independent: Required Listening: “Knock Knock” by Smog

In Required Listening, music director Sam shares some of his favorite records from his collection. This article originally appeared at the CU Independent.

Bill Callahan isn’t the kind of artist who makes it easy for listeners to understand him, but anyone gazing at the absurd artwork on this absurdly titled record should already have some idea of that. And yet all of Callahan’s work under the Smog moniker has a curious way of reinventing the singer-songwriter template on his own terms, like a sarcastic 21st century approximation of Bob Dylan with political angst traded in for idle sarcasm and romantic honesty reinterpreted as self-deprecating perversion.

There are at least four Smog albums that could proudly be considered his masterpiece, but Knock Knock might be the easiest entry point just for how sprawling and realized Callahan’s vision feels. All the trademark Smog elements are all here: the potpourri of sonic choices from song to song, the subtly effective arrangements, Callahan’s ability to turn everything you have ever felt into one repeating two-chord pattern. But rarely does he encapsulate so many different stories and moments with such consistently knockout results.

On a lyrical level, Knock Knock actually functions surprisingly well as great Midwestern rock opera of sorts, seeming to tell a general coming-of-age story from the suburban-bound “Let’s Move to the Country” to the optimism of “Teenage Spaceship,” the ultimate liftoff of “Hit the Ground Running” and the culminating, weary cold-shoulder of “I Could Drive Forever.” These anecdotal songs are really where Callahan is at his peak, spouting off phrases with intense directness. “With every mile/Another piece of me peels off/And whips down the road/All down the road/I should’ve left a long time ago/The best idea I ever had,” Callahan chants to himself on “I Could Drive Forever” as a warbly guitar line slowly crumbles around him in drunken confusion. Even more affecting is the minimalist ballad “Teenage Spaceship,” with its three-note guitar lick and gentle aura glowing as Callahan confesses, “I swore I’d never lay like a log/Bark like a dog/I was a teenage smog/Sewn to the sky.” The fact that Callahan was still capable of channeling sentiments like this despite being 33 at the time of Knock Knock’s release is a hint to the trials and tribulations behind his musings.

Even at his most upbeat, Callahan’s always been the odd man out, glaring from his isolated vantage point and making slight mutterings that we were only so lucky to listen in on. Smog never seemed to have a laugh that wasn’t at someone else’s expense, and while Knock Knock doesn’t necessarily toss tradition aside, it does find Callahan making some of the most legitimately serene music he had made up until that point. When Callahan suggests in the introductory track, “Let’s move to the country/Just you and me” on top of a looping bed of hums and violins, there isn’t a trace of irony in his voice. This earnestness is true of the music as well. “Held” and “Hit the Ground Running” are the closest Callahan has ever come to writing good old-fashioned road rockers. Of course, it doesn’t take long to get to a scornful line like “Boney cowboys and southern gentlemen/Betting women that’ll never mend/They ride the roads as they bend/As they bend to their dead ends,” but there’s always a genuine joy tied into the irony here.

Approaching an artist like Smog for the first time can be a jarring experience just because of how soaked the music is in the singular mindset of the creator. Before Knock Knock Bill Callahan was the do-it-yourself king of sorrow, and afterwards he became the everyman with a permanent half-smile and ever deepening vocal chords. But Knock Knock is perhaps the most encompassing of Callahan’s records and indeed one of the most defining records of the turn of the millennium. If Neil Young was the voice of the disillusioned, Tom Waits that of the downtrodden, J Mascis of the uncool and Thom Yorke of the paranoid, Bill Callahan summed all that up in two words: “No dancing.”

By Sam Goldner.

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