Over a career that has spanned nearly two decades and a dozen albums, Bill Callahan has been many things. If the hundreds of songs he has recorded as Smog—and briefly, (Smog)—are to be believed, he has been a stranger, a teenage spaceship, even Star Wars. But never has he simply been himself. On this year's Woke on a Whaleheart, however, Callahan abandoned his longstanding moniker, opting to release the record simply under his Christian name. So why did he finally drop the veil of mystery behind Smog?
"It felt like monomania to hold onto it," Callahan said over email. "To have so many objects—LPs, CDs, T-shirts—with this name on it, it felt like Elvis memorabilia. So I just lopped it off and let it lay. What will grow in its place is hard to say."
Based on Whaleheart, his music is flowering in all the usual ways. These new songs are still marked by Callahan's laconic approach to lyrics, and are sung in his froggy timbre. As ever, he focuses on the delicate, if not unspoken terrain of personal relationship; such naked insight is all the more unnerving coming from his boyish, Alfred E. Neuman mug. The album does differ from his previous work in that it's dressed up in traditional American music forms. Gospel vocals steer "Diamond Dancer" and "Sycamore" into unexpectedly soulful territory, while the slack-jawed call-and-response of "The Wheel" is pure country 'n' western. But according to Callahan, the incorporation of these genres was a natural extension of his previous work.
"I don't think I decided to take my music in any direction," he explained. "There are homages to some music forms on my last record, but the songs themselves are pretty much without influence."
When I asked if his reasons for writing songs have changed over such a long career, he points back to the songs themselves for the answers.
"I write every day," he said. "There isn't much room for questioning of self in that. Or if there is, maybe it comes out in the work you do."