Starting in 1990, Bill Callahan recorded and released highly idiosyncratic, stubbornly low-tech music under the name Smog. As time passed, his material became increasingly accessible and better-recorded. Another six years down the line, the spanking new Woke on a Whaleheart appears, credited to plain ol' Bill Callahan.
So, what's different? Not a huge amount. His dry, conversational, Lou Reed-meets-Leonard Cohen-for-drinks delivery is still instantly recognizable. The musical arrangements are still eclectic, shifting willy-nilly from unadorned folkiness to strident Velvet Underground-ish rock to mock country. The only real revelation here is a just-noticeable shift in attitude. While Smog's view of the world once tended to swing between the dark and stinging ("Every girl I ever loved has wanted to be hit / Every girl I ever loved has left me 'cause I wouldn't do it") and sexually frank romanticism ("More beautiful than the stars, more beautiful than the rain / Was her face when she came"), the stuff on Whaleheart is somehow mystical. The opening song, "From the Rivers to the Ocean," is a paean to what the singer terms "wordless knowledge." "Well, I could tell you about the river," he explains bluntly, "or we could just get in." Later, the highly literal "Diamond Dancer" spins a magical realist tale of a girl who "was dancing so hard she turned herself into a diamond."
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From Courtney Love to MIA, there's a disturbingly sexist critical tendency to define female artists by the influence of their boyfriends, and it's tempting to reverse the conceit in Bill Callahan's case. The earliest Smog recordings were experimental, noisy and sometimes gruesomely unlistenable: At the time, Callahan was living with legendary shit-disturber, zine maven and anti-musician Lisa "Suckdog" Carver. Hmmm. Later, as his material became more introspective and melancholy, he was involved with the famously morose and bluesy Chan Marshall of Cat Power. Recently, as his music has become more airy and sweetly imagistic, Callahan's name has been romantically linked with the spritely, mythologically inclined harpist-singer Joanna Newsom. Hard not to see a connection.