An epicycle refers to a smaller circle moving around the circumference of a larger circle; a unified shape moving around a larger unified shape. Hence, our use of the name to frame a discussion about themes within an artist's larger body of work. Synergy!
My one concession to anything resembling patriotism: my profound interest in art that I think could only have been created in America. I'm willing to go out on a limb and say that no place other than America could have produced, say, F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby or David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest -- because no other society is so wrapped in the desire to reinvent or as obsessed with the self-made person. Or the self. Fuck yeah!
Most of the conversation about uniquely American music centers on the cultural cross-pollination that birthed jazz, blues, and rock and roll -- but I'm going to approach it from a different angle. Bill Callahan is a great example of a native songwriter whose lyrics are especially tied to the American landscape -- literally and figuratively.
Like pretty much all of his albums, Bill Callahan's excellent new album Apocalypse took a little while to grow on me; hence, the reason this feature appears now, and not a month ago when the album was first released. Callahan's stark instrumentation and deadpan talk-singing aren't exactly the stuff of earworms. And it definitely takes a while to unpack his lyrics -- which on the first go-round either sound eye-rollingly simplistic or nonsensically cryptic. But after a few listens, the enormity and ambitiousness of what his songs convey starts to crack through. In a world saturated with lo-fi-loving singer-songwriters, Callahan's a gem.
Apocalypse confirms one of the things I think resonates best about Callahan's music -- and one of the aspects I think makes him such a uniquely American artist: most of Callahan's songs either overtly or covertly hinge on their subjects either reaching an uneasy peace with the land, or pushing the trappings of modern landscapes and lifestyles up against the undeveloped land, seeing what happens, and either thriving on the results or coping with them. Just like actual American life.
"Butterflies Drowned in Wine" [Supper]
Let's start with the obvious: drunken, dead butterflies. It's a striking image that's equal parts stirring and unsettling, bringing to mind lavish excess and nature getting trounced by something man-made -- both of which are pretty common criticisms leveraged against American culture. The song's arresting stop-and-start arrangement bears mention, too, especially since it rapidly changes tempo and instrumentation (shambling lo-fi guitars, multiple tempo changes, pedal steel) while still translating as a coherent song. Despite everything going on, the song still feels spacious, giving the vocals plenty of room to spread out and inhabit the landscape.
Like the iconic terse American dude, Callahan has serious chops when it comes to economy of words, packing some succinct, powerful thoughts into his songs. The money shot in "Butterflies goes "You've got to bust up a sidewalk/ Sometimes/ To get people to gather 'round." It's a sentiment that neatly unpacks the upshots and downsides of getting attention through causing commotion, altering an appearance, and changing the landscape. I'd argue that's a uniquely American way of approaching the need for attention: snag it through force and change, whether you're developing uncharted land, or writing a song.
"Sycamore" [Woke On a Whaleheart]
An interesting point re: Callahan singling out sycamores as the titular tree: while all trees slough off their old bark as they grow taller and larger, it's much easier to see this process on sycamore trees. Just by looking at the trunk, you've got a visible record of the tree's past. Like most of America, it's a landscape that doesn't do a great job at hiding its flaws, always looking sort of raw and new and fresh. It's a great setting for the beginning of the song, a juxtaposition of recognizing potential and channeling that into conquest: "There's sap in the trees if you tap 'em/ There's blood on the seas if you map 'em." Mining the most out of the natural world and positioning this action as a both challenge and a kind of birthright is (arguably -- but only kind of) a pretty New World attitude.
In general, Callahan sings a lot about taking flight and putting down roots, both of which physically alter the landscape and the way whoever's settling down or moving up experiences the landscape. In "Butterflies," flight lets change glide across the countryside ("An eagle flies right through my mind/ The shadow skims across the land"); in "Sycamore," Callahan sings "Sycamore got to grow down to grow up/ Young roots hold the soil like baby's first cup." A link to the land allows you to stand tall, making a place for yourself and establishing new life through strong roots -- a metaphor that's a bit of a mashup of pioneering and paternal advice. Ambling (but focused) guitar picking echoes this restlessness with the added benefit of sounding fatherly-folksy.
This charge to put down roots and establish yourself gets mixed with some other heady life lessons about entrepreneurship and the impetus to succeed: especially Callahan's musings on a stick being bent, deemed too green -- but still wanting to be "the fire part of the fire," burning hot in the thick of the action. It's easy to link this to the obsession with being first, with everyone wanting to stand out from the pack and be a unique little snowflake. That's pretty ingrained into modern life in general, but rings especially true in a first-world society.
Musically and thematically, "Drover" is the most overtly Americana of the three songs I've selected, all acoustic guitar, Clint Eastwood vocals, and written from the perspective of someone who either is -- or fancies himself -- a cattle wrangler. Pushing to move forward, then getting betrayed by the fruits of your labor; it's a creation spiraling out of control, your own work working against you. It's all about reaching an uneasy truce with the land -- a kind of relationship with the land that I'd argue doesn't so much exist outside of America.
Apocalypse's goofily tongue-in-cheek "America!" was probably the logical choice to include in this lineup, but "Drover" actually gets more to the heart of what's both awful and exhilarating about the kind of freedom America offers: anything can happen! But you have to make it happen! Callahan conveys same sentiment this sentiment way more eloquently in "Drover's chorus: "One thing about this wild, wild country/ It takes a strong, strong/ It breaks a strong, strong mind." The ability to make this happen and the exciting responsibility it affords kind of explains (even if it doesn't justify) America's enduring appeal and mystique. It's a challenge, a gauntlet thrown, and as Callahan declares, "anything less, anything less/ Makes me feel like I'm wasting my time."
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