Smog isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. Less of a band and more the creative vehicle of Bill Callahan, Smog emerged as one of the pioneers of the indie and lo-fi movements, initially self-releasing home-produced song sets on cassette, before gradually attracting both an audience and record label support.
Not that there is anything mainstream about Callahan’s music, nor his quintessentially cynical, irreverent and almost nihilistic world view. Dongs Of Devotion was first released in 2000, and 19 years later, it still sounds as poignant, funny, destructive and ruthless as it did then.
The music is deceptively simple: basic melodies are presented in stark arrangements that seldom stray further than Callahan’s deadpan vocals juxtaposed against a stripped-bare accompaniment of percussion, guitar and keyboards.
It’s easy to dismiss the result as the egotistical meanderings of an off-beat mind – but then you start listening to the lyrics, and you realise that the music is merely a vehicle for Callahan’s disconcertingly candid, unflinching observations of life, the world and everything in between.
This is not an album to be taken lightly, nor is it possible to appreciate its significance after a single listen. Instead, it’s a set that demands rapt attention and close analysis.
The melodies are surprisingly catchy, almost annoyingly wiggling their way into your head. There is a looping repetitiveness that’s almost hypnotic, while nursery-rhyme structure of the lyrics can lull the listener into a complacent daze.
But listen a little closer, and you realise just how disconcertingly dystopian Callahan’s world view is. He might be singing with a levity and an apparent humour, but it makes the grave reality of the images he so breezily sketches all the more telling.
On ‘Bloodflow’, cheerleaders chant with a bright innocence, while the music gains momentum with a steam train-like intensity. Electric guitar and Jewish harp create an unlikely combination that’s loaded with bite, perfectly matching Callahan’s cynical intonation: No time for a tête-a-tête/Can I borrow your machete …
His observation’s are almost unbearably honest: on ‘Nineteen’, he intones: Without her clothes she looked like / A leper in the snow / I left her in the snow / Without her clothes. And on Devotion, he remarks: There are some terrible gossips in this town / With jaws like vices and eyes like drains.
Once you start listening – really listening – to the lyrics, the effect is more like listening to poetry with a musical backdrop, than music with poetic lyrics. The melodies and their arrangements mirror the bare-bulb veracity, the unsettling honesty, of Callahan’s unflinching observations.
The effect is as haunting as it is compelling: you find yourself revisiting the album and its 11 tracks with a mixture of dread and yearning. And while I wouldn’t call it enjoyable or entertaining, there is a certain, almost voyeuristic satisfaction to listening and analysing Smog’s musical essays.
This reissue is presented as a double album on clean, quiet 180g vinyl, and packaged in a gatefold cover that includes those all-important lyrics. The production is as stark and unadorned as the music itself, ensuring maximum impact. Not for the faint-hearted, though!
Supplied by: Audio Nut