Review Summary: “Knock Knock”
“Lightning pussy who?”
“Wow mister you’re the first person today that needed more of an incentive than that!”
Turn the clocks back to 1999, pre-millennium dread hangs thick in the air, and there I am working late shifts at my local supermarket; I’d just had to move back in with my parents to ensure I didn’t go off the rails in my final year of studies and every day was becoming a little bit more like Bukowski. The work involved sorting deliveries by aisles and then wheeling the sorted stacks of goods out onto the shop floor in anticipation of the arrival of the even less fortunate night shift crew, so before long ‘Knock Knock’ became my go-to listen for these interminable five hour shifts; something about Callahan’s steady clip clop rhythms lent themselves to the work, but more than that Bill’s voice sounded prematurely old, as if he had an ancient soul rattling around somewhere inside of him. My spirit felt crushed and so the themes of yearning for escape and embarking on a new life were ones that resonated deep.
‘Knock Knock’ is a concept album of sorts but be warned the theme presented here is one of the most depressing imaginable and can be summarised as ‘man finds love; starts new life in the country with his woman; have a number of children; at least one partner commits adultery; couple split; man hits the road again’. What stops the album from becoming wrist-slittingly bleak is Bill’s inherent quirkiness; you're never too far from an appealing turn of phrase and his vocals have that uncanny knack of retaining comforting warmth whatever the subject matter.
The centrepiece song of the disc stands apart from this overall concept, though its mood is a perfect match; ‘River Guard’ is a highly detailed character sketch that plays out like a short story, with the narrator identifying all too closely with the prisoners he’s entrusted with supervising as they swim. The stately piano gives the song real gravitas and Callahan serves up some of his most evocative lyrics here, in particular the chorus of ‘we are constantly on trial, it’s a way to be free’ has to go down as one of his very best. Similarly ‘Teenage Spaceship’ sits a little outside the main themes of the album but despite its understated and delicate nature can be considered a Callahan anthem of sorts; the lyrics identifying a ‘teenage smog sewn to the sky’ definitely come across as self-referential.
The pace does ramp up a few notches on occasion and this is where the influence of producer Jim O’Rourke comes into play, with ‘Held’, ‘No Dancing’ and ‘Cold Blooded Old Times’ bearing his signature style that he’d develop further on his own release ‘Insignificance’ two years later. Built around repetitive steady drums these tracks all include a peculiar embellishment to distinguish them, ranging from eerie guitar squalls to singing children and hand claps. The final four songs are uniformly slow and gentle and this is where the concept of ‘Knock Knock’ plays out to its sad conclusion; ‘Sweet Treat’ is an aching rumination on adultery which concludes with the bleak assertion ‘if someone offers you some sugar you should eat it’; ‘Hit the Ground Running’ is more upbeat and sees a return of the child singers, but despite the mood of hope you get the impression tough times are just around the corner; this is confirmed by the reflective and regretful tones of the closing pair of ‘I Could Drive Forever’ and ‘Left Only with Love’ with the latter finding the narrator totally broken stating ‘I hope you find your husband and a father for your children’. Damn.
Callahan continues to grow into that grumbly voice of his and has moved onto greater success working under his own name, fleshing out his musical approach on albums like 2009’s excellent dreamlike pastoral song-cycle ‘Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle’ and 2011’s scatter-shot grab-bag ‘Apocalypse’. Shaking off the Smog title seems to have marked a move away from material quite as bleak as this and it’s understandable that the landscape of ‘Knock Knock’ isn’t somewhere Bill would want to put down permanent roots; nevertheless it retains a unique charm among his work. For me this album will always conjure up images of a dead-end world of tumble-weed strewn highways and desolate farmland, a place I could really associate with back in ’99; I’m pleased for the sake of both our sanities that Bill and myself have since moved on to more forgiving mental climes.