When Bill Callahan's deep voice penetrates from the depths of murky instrumentation, to deliver lyrics at once uncomfortably hilarious and deadly serious, my focus is entirely directed. Bill Callahan is Smog. And his album Dongs of Sevotion (yes I have been dead since this album came out, having been stabbed by the har-hars) commands a locus of attention, as Justice Aversion's shuffling organ spells doom and his voice intunes:
It happens on a side street maybe,
It happens on a main street maybe,
Lion bites zebra neck,
Zebra stomps lion head.
It's just this justice
Aversion for the improper way things are done today
I route for the underdog no matter who they are...
We could stay up all night talking
About my animal nature
and the universe's hesitance
to grant us grace.
The sounds of scraping chaos meet the honesty in Callahan's convictions, ending on a somber note. It is important to consider Smog's output, song-by-song as each representing a different character in a portrait of extremes. As on the album preceding this, Knock Knock where Bill sang from the perspective of a prisoner's guard, and a teenage spaceship Dongs of Sevotion takes this concept and investigation to another level of hilarious darkness. When the clean guitar strums of the next song come in, and Bill's voice mutters "Dress Sexy at My Funeral, my good wife for the first time in your life" the urge to outright cackle is hardly withheld. It is all about approach. The seriousness of this particular character in his wishes to his wife, makes the song raise above mere satire. He earnestly tells his wife "And when it comes your turn to speak before the crowd. Tell them about the time we did it on the beach with fireworks above us. On the railroad tracks with the gravel in your back. In the back room of a crowded bar. And in the very graveyard where my body now rests..."
With Strayed Smog turns the static down to inhabit the body of someone who "never thought I'd be one of those men with pin-ups on their wall for all to see, I thought that was just mechanics." The guitar repeats a blues pattern remiscent of Pearl Jam's Yellow Ledbetter. "I've been an alleycat and a bumblebee to your panther and your wasp." I can't help but constantly want to quote the lyrics on this album. The characters he is able to portray with a minimal amount of words is amazing.
Bloodflow is a silly song with a machete's edge. Backed up by the Dongettes, they cheerlead on the chorus: "No time for a tete-a-tete / Can I borrow your machete? HEY! HEY! B. L. double-o D. F. L. O. W. BLOOD FLOW!" And that's all I need to say about this stage of hypnosis.
And while there are songs of Devotion, on the album--honest searchings for God--I choose not to focus on those songs here. Instead, I will close with a close examination of Cold Discovery--a song of such intensity that many will find it unlistenable in its emotional weight. Remember, Callahan impregnates himself with the entireity of a character. As with almost all writing, one should never assume the narrator's "I" and is of identity is the author's.
And though your teeth have gnashed through death
Still you come to me so gently
And find a soft place on your body
And rub me with it
Of this I won't soon forget
You're the one that will remain.
At first we have a love story, a girl hurt by some force needing comfort. The narrator has no difficulty with submitting his devotion to her:
Bust a lock with a rock
Don't need a key to have me
This was your cold discovery.
We needed a fever then we needed a cure
The bait no longer lured
Say goodbye quick as you can
A car waits for me just across the border.
My interpretation here is that after the girl came to the narrator's arm, she realized that this is not the man for him. Maybe she spotted that this man may be a monster... He further sings:
Wish me luck no good luck no bad luck
Just wish me luck in my cold dsicovery
That you are gone
My cold discovery
That you're the one
that will remain.
And now that refrain seems sinister, but not as sinister as...
Oh I can hold a woman
Down on a hardwood floor
And her teeth can gnash right through me
Looking for a soft place
And of this you won't soon forget
I had no soft place for you to rest
And this was your cold discovery
I can hold a woman
Down on a hardwood floor
And this was my cold discovery
Few saw it for what ir really was.
And then I think back to the song Distance, earlier on the album and the line: "All these women have passed through me and I have turned them all to waste."
Indeed, Dongs of Sevotion is an album with humor as the title suggests, but there are more questions raised about the sanity within in devotion than anything else. The danger that lie in total revelation of soft places. Listening to this album, more so than any other Smog album opens up our vulnerabilities, and for many it will be downright uncomfortable.
- Voice, guitar, synthesizer, Hammond
, Jaw Harp
- Drums, Production
, Nicole Evans
, Damian Rogers
- the Dongettes
- Justice Aversion
- Dress Sexy at my Funeral
- the Hard Road
- Easily Led
- Cold Discovery
- Permanent Smile
In memory of Phil Bonnet, released April 4, 2000 by Drag City.