Bill Callahan always sounds like he’s in process. His earliest albums under the Smog moniker were wiry, bold compositions most easily described as experimental outsider art, while his most recent release under his given name is a no-frills acoustic ode to falling in love and raising a family. Over his long, prolific career, Callahan has kept his fans in a state of suspensive anticipation, and not unlike a certain fine artist who famously painted only in blue for a period, his work has phases. But regardless of how much Callahan’s music has shifted over the years, that same steady baritone vocal delivery keeps us grounded, and there are thematic throughlines appearing across his discography that barely waver. To illustrate them, one need only read a handful of articles about Callahan and collect a word bank as they go. The ones that appear most are as follows: inscrutable, alienation, isolation, witty, wry, love, sex. And then there’s the big one, the one that dwarfs all of the others: death.
Dongs Of Sevotion, which turns 20 tomorrow, was Callahan’s ninth Smog album, released just one year after his seminal Knock Knock, the second of two albums produced by Jim O’Rourke. Knock Knock boasted a few of Callahan’s most enduring Smog songs, including “Cold Blooded Old Times” and “Let’s Move To The Country,” and found Callahan recording with a full band for the first time, writing songs from the perspective of adopted personas. It was decidedly bold, a fork in the road, and Dongs Of Sevotion might’ve followed a new path forward. Instead, it straddled two. After its release, Callahan would return to a more stripped-down style of production, eschewing some of the grandiose gestures made here for something simpler, perhaps a little bit closer to the heart. Produced by Tortoise’s John McEntire, who also drums on the album, Dongs Of Sevotion is at once meditative and bombastic, a collection of songs that prods at life’s most inscrutable questions without prescribing a lens or even a consistent mood through which to unravel them.
Those questions mostly have to deal with sex and death, because what else is there to think about, really? “[Death] is something that I try to avoid in songs and in life, but it’s hard,” Callahan once told Pitchfork. “It’s just the big joke at the end of existence.” Dongs Of Sevotion opens on a foreboding note with the electronically rendered “Justice Aversion,” which begins with a hedging prediction of where a crime will take place. “Happens on a side street, maybe/ Happens on a main street, maybe,” Callahan sings over thudding percussion and an arrangement that mimics the bleep bloop of a heart rate monitor. The vibe is deadly serious, a doom-and-gloom introduction to what is, overall, a dark collection of songs, but the groove of the drumbeat belies the more sinister, and cynical, themes at work. Later, on “Hard Road,” we hear what sounds like the opening riff of an arena rock song over and over again that abruptly cuts out and is replaced by a rhythmic drum. It mimics a moment of pre-death paralysis, the body mercifully reset by the electric pulse of a defibrillator.
Joy streams through the darkness on Dongs Of Sevotion, as is expected on any Callahan record. “Dress Sexy At My Funeral” is among his most beloved songs, a jaunty, guitar-driven plea to a dowdy spouse. “Dress sexy at my funeral my good wife/ For the first time in your life,” Callahan sings, before listing the locations where the good wife and the narrator fucked: the railroad tracks, the back room of a crowded bar, “the very graveyard” where he’s been put to rest. There are so many words we use in American culture to say that someone has died. They’ve “passed away” or “left this earth” or “gone to God,” as if simply saying the word is somehow profane. Death, the final act, is so wrapped up in pageantry so as to be indistinguishable from performance; to laugh at it is considered as an affront to dignity. Because of this, “Dress Sexy At My Funeral” feels subversive. That someone would want to be remembered for being really good at sex, as opposed to being an accomplished workhorse who always counted his blessings and gave money to charity, is perfectly reasonable in this space Callahan creates, where buried desire, no matter how absurd, can be shamelessly expressed. “Most of all don’t forget about that time on the beach,” he sings. “With fireworks above us.”
But stark admissions aren’t always gleeful on this album. The narrator of “Strayed” contemplates his own depravity when he confesses to having become a man who papers his walls with pin-ups. “I thought that was just mechanics,” he admits. Later, on the gentle, piano-driven “Easily Led,” pleasure becomes the Great Manipulator as expectations in a budding relationship shift and one person falls harder than the other. It’s the most crushing song on this album, a moment of sustained fragility that never shatters and isn’t even a little bit sarcastic. “I was just trying to cross the street with you/ I was just a step devoted,” Callahan sings. A hiss of room tone underscores the recording, lending the song a sense of intimacy, a moment of closeness that lingers and transitions us into the next track, its sonic inverse.
“Bloodflow” is another one of Callahan’s best-loved songs, and it ranks among Smog’s weirdest. On paper, it’s mostly nonsensical, a joyful song about … murder? Or maybe orgasm? Here, Callahan rhymes “tête-à-tête” with “machete,” and he is joined on the chorus by a group referred to in the liner notes as the Dongettes, chanting women who sound like demented cheerleaders in a David Lynch film. They enthusiastically spell out the song title with increasing speed over a frenzied arrangement that features the delightful boing boing boing of a mouth harp. It’s an overwhelming song, which makes it memorable, overtaking some of the more contemplative tracks that come near the end of the record, one of which includes an unsettling image of a man pinning a woman to a hardwood floor, a moment of violence driven by, presumably, passion, that results in a moment of reckoning. “I have no soft place for you to rest,” Callahan sings. “And this was your cold discovery.”
In an old Stereogum Progress Report, Callahan offered up a speculative, unsentimental definition of what it is to be human: “I’m still working it out, but they say we’re 97% water. I think we are maybe water with a little bit of things floating on top.” Like much of Callahan’s Smog work, Dongs Of Sevotion denies the desire to imbue lyrics with heady meaning, eschewing figurative language almost completely. What he says is what he means, and sometimes what he says doesn’t really make all that much sense. The abstraction in Callahan’s lyrics are open for interpretation, but the final song on this record, “Permanent Smile,” is one of the loveliest he’s ever written, a kind of thesis statement for the statement-averse.
It opens with a hard, staggered drumbeat that could intro a song by some bygone girl group in the ’60s, underscored by floaty, twinkling notes like windchimes in a gentle breeze. If “Permanent Smile” were a season it would be spring, a time of new life and resurrection. When Callahan’s narrator describes his own corpse decaying in the ground, it is in almost Biblical terms: “Seven waves of insects make families in my skin,” he sings at the climax. “And the flesh rotted off my skull/ And then I will have earned my permanent smile.” It could’ve ended there, with weeds growing out of a skeleton, jawbones grinning in perpetuity, but it doesn’t. Instead, the song closes with the narrator’s fearful realization that all of this living might not have meant all that much, that the planet will continue to spin, giving life to new bodies without consequence. His dying gasp is: “Oh God, I never asked why.”