Any band with the staying power of 13 years that continues to release vital records will, for better or worse, be historicized by its audience. How does this record match up to the best ones? How does it fit into that band’s career trajectory? Still, the very existence of these questions in the discussion of Smog –oh wait, now it’s (Smog) (because you’re supposed to whisper it when you say it) — obviates (Smog)’s importance within the indie rock canon.
One-man band Bill Callahan, under the guise of Smog and now (Smog), has been recording songs since 1990 that are loaded with on-the-money lyrics that are sometimes very funny and sometimes uncomfortably personal. Early Smog is a mess of poor home recording, terrible musicianship, and gleeful musical anarchy. Several turning points follow. 1993 saw the release of Julius Caesar, a certifiable indie classic that saw Callahan moving in the direction of the lyrical auteur. In 1995, it was the brooding, beautiful Wild Love, on which he upgrades to mid-fi and sings a haunting collection of songs that amount to a hyper-realistic self-portrait of an increasingly depressed man. A very, very sad EP, single and LP followed. Then, in 1997, Jim O’Rourke produced Red Apple Falls, marking the beginning of the “mature” period in the Smog oeuvre. Callahan has since conquered a glorious, but also dubious, early period of lyrical vindictiveness, willful tunelessness, arguable sexism and certain indulgent self-deprecation. He’s finally found his voice — literally.
I write ‘literally’ because more so on Supper than on any other Smog album, Callahan depends not just on his lyrics but on his smooth, beautiful baritone voice. The jokes, the overbearing narcissism and the trite put-downs have been purged for good. The sincerity and conviction with which he now sings, and the very truth of what he says, invite comparisons with the unequalled forefather of the icy-cool singer-songwriter genre, Leonard Cohen. These lyrics won’t shock you, like in 1995 when he sang, “Every girl I’ve ever loved has wanted to be hit,” or in 1993 when he sang, “I’m gonna be drunk, so drunk, at your wedding.” They sink in over time, and improve with repeated listenings.
All of which isn’t to imply that Supper abolishes all ties to the Smog of a decade ago. “Driving” bears the same mystic charm as the songs on Forgotten Foundation and Julius Caesar, but it’s also true that this is one of Supper‘s weaker songs. The best songs have an almost-middle-aged sensibility, projecting confidence and serenity. Even on the ones that rock, Callahan’s voice envelops and dominates the whole song, giving it a pervasive but harmonious melancholy.
Overall, the pace is slow and affecting, and no individual tune stands apart much from any other. An impressive achievement, considering his enormously sloppy early work, his uneven middle period marked by some obviously great songs and some obviously not-so-great songs, and his occasionally flat recent music. Supper is a mature, coherent album, packed with articulate lyrics from a man who is obviously alone when with others, but accepts that feeling as natural. Listening to most of (Smog)’s work is like being forced to read the diary of someone you don’t know. Supper, however, feels like the relief, comfort and elation that follows a good, hard cry.