Farewell to the Pathetic Aesthetic

In the early Nineties human beings became interesting again. After the tumultuous trends of New Wave prophylactic pop, hair metal, and glitz-drenched superstars of the Eighties, audiences began turning their attention toward musicians who oozed honesty and fallibility. In multiple arenas of expression, many artists shifted their focus away from the esoteric isolation of smashed TV sets, paint-splattered canvases, and political grandstanding. Irony and transgression had become cliche in the wake of juxtaposed iconography and yam-fucking performance art.

Instead a trend developed toward an aesthetic of human imperfection. Amateur paintings purchased at thrift stores, replete with unintentionally malformed figures and distorted perspectives, sat alongside chillingly intimate confessional works as an attempt to escape the perceived dead end of contrivance and irony. Likewise, musicians began to forsake the malefic mutations of recording studios in favor of the immediacy and intimacy of home recordings on slipshod lo-fi equipment. No one was pulling the wool over anyone's eyes: The music was captured with every blemish and sour note while the lyrics dwelled on the most personal examinations of failure and shortcomings. It was more than amateurism; it was a pathetic aesthetic.

Bill Callahan, the prolific, whispy-voiced whiner behind the one-man-band with the enigmatic pseudonym, Smog, has unwittingly become a figurehead of lonely lo-fi minstrels. His early releases, Sewn to the Sky (1991, Disaster Records) and Forgotten Foundation (1992, Drag City) were abject exercises in melodic fumbling soaked in obtrusive distortion. Like a well-worn diary, Callahan crammed his meager four-track cassette recorder with confessions and insecurities. As years wore on, however, the songwriter continuously offered new approaches to his modus operandi, perchance to prove there was more beneath the, er, smoke screen of Smog's depressive lyrics.

Julius Caesar (1993, Drag City) marked the beginning of Smog's flirtations with studio recording and orchestration that resulted in the mid-fi follow-up EP, Burning Kingdom (1994, Drag City). Although Callahan had graduated from his home four-track to the multitrack studio, his lyrical themes remained dour and unyielding: "I let you crawl into my shell/Didn't mean to do it." In 1995's Wild Love (Drag City), Callahan continued his tightrope walk between threadbare acoustic songs and bombastic orchestral pieces such as "Bathysphere" and the title track's lament, "somebody chopped down my wild love." The Doctor Came at Dawn in 1996, and the next year's Red Apple Falls further elaborated Smog's musical refinement.

The surprising success of Nirvana's Nevermind (1991) marked a turning point toward earnest emotional expression in popular music, which quickly brought such bared-soul sounds as Sebadoh, Dinosaur Jr., Codeine, and Palace to public attention. Granted, these weren't the first artists to sing songs dwelling on intimate details of their personal life (we defer to the likes of Nick Drake, Leonard Cohen, and John Lennon as predecessors). But Callahan and his contemporaries did represent something altogether different in their rudimentary songwriting skills: They weren't really all that good at it. They were real people with real limitations and vulnerabilities.

Now, some ten years after his first tinkerings with the four-track recorder, Callahan lounges in the Manhattan offices of his publicity company, describing in his clipped, concise tone the impetus for his comparatively grandiose and eloquent eighth album, Knock, Knock, released this week on Chicago's Drag City label. Far from his lo-fi beginnings, the latest Smog production includes a children's choir and anonymous backing players on cello, piano, tape loops, and keyboards. And, like Lou Barlow of Sebadoh and Palace's Will Oldham, Callahan finds himself at odds with his success and role as the frail champion of the lonely lo-fi Everyman. "I was like [infamous B-movie director] Ed Wood in my early days," Callahan recalls, "trying to do the best I could with cheap-ass equipment, while always envisioning a bigger treatment."

Knock, Knock shows Smog dabbling in different musical styles, while retaining its trademark minor-key melancholy. Sounding akin to Lou Reed's approach to songwriting -- treating songs as if under a magnifying glass -- the repetitive riffs and bruised lyrics of "Cold Blooded Old Times" holds our focus uncomfortably locked on images of domestic abuse. Callahan's protagonist squirms, "How can I stand/And laugh with the man/Who redefined your body." Elsewhere, overdriven dance drum loops and droning guitars supply the backbone of "Held" while Callahan muses, "For the first time in my life/I let myself be held/like a big old baby ... I am moving away/From within the reach of me."

Like Reed or Hank Williams, Callahan's seemingly confessional lyrics are like fragments of prose dialogue, visiting characters as they lick their wounds from countless failures and traumas. "I don't know if there is anything that is truly autobiographical," he ponders. "Anytime you put something into words, it becomes fiction. My songs are definitely rooted in my life, but someone else who was there might say that it's not what really happened."

Callahan's approach is to reflect upon common situations within fictitious accounts to illustrate universal human experience. Smog's lyrics "are about people who are evolving from one womb to the next womb. That's when interesting things start to happen," the singer explains. "If you're moving, or falling in love, or getting a new job, those are ways of going from the internal into the external, then back into a new internal thing. I try to write something that's just dropping into someone's situation coldly, without judgment."

Although it may be easy to consider Callahan's lyrics dour and unyielding, upon closer examination the words tend to make positive conclusions or understandings of particular events in retrospect. "Most people don't listen that closely," Callahan laments. "They think [my lyrics] fit into a premade groove that was made long before I was born and was just sitting there waiting for me." But it's Smog's deadpan, cynical humor that seems most often misinterpreted as a bleak world view. A close listen to the self-effacing mockery of songs such as "Prince Alone in the Studio" and the flippant juxtapositions of upbeat music beneath the unsavory lyrics of "Cold Blooded Old Times" reveals a dark sense of humor beneath Smog's pathos. The singer wryly chuckles, "I think it's funny to have a pop song about something heavy."

Callahan is selecting backing musicians to accompany him on a March tour of the eastern United States and later treks to the West Coast and Europe. While he'd once toured alone, playing only guitar or keyboard, the singer and recent transplant from Sacramento to Chicago finds his newest music best represented by a group. Numerous singles, EPs, and albums into its existence, Smog's seemingly perpetual musical gloom continues to fester, regardless of its progress changing from a malformed, distorted musical Everyman into a refined studio entity. And Callahan continues to illustrate the everyday significance of his lyrics as found fragments from anyone else's life, despite Smog's apparent personal vulnerability and unflinching honesty.

As Smog exits the decade with Knock, Knock perhaps aimed at leaving the pathetic aesthetic behind, Callahan remains rooted in his sense of universal experience and empathy. Describing Smog's ongoing endeavors, the singer tellingly considers himself one among a common multitude, stating, "I feel like a bee in a beehive, just doing what I'm supposed to do without much question.

KEEP MIAMI NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Dave Clifford