Review Summary: Bill Callahan's dark masterpiece - a world where unbridled pain and exquisite beauty coexist
Two towers jut out from an idyllic English landscape. Ornate architecture blends with the imposing specter of oppressive religion. Promises of heaven and peace amid a land swept by an unforgiving plague. Bill Callahan’s project Smog
navigates such spaces, and no album in his discography (except, perhaps, its successor) more perfectly encapsulates this acute sense of darkness. Morbid without being overly dramatic, Red Apple Falls
is Callahan’s dark masterpiece – a sonic tapestry of coexisting hopelessness and beauty.
The album begins with an instant suggestion of uncertainty – a dissonant chord fingerpicked awkwardly, which slides into a droning and narcotic hum. The lyrics to “The Morning Paper” continue the oblique analogy – some looming threat counteracted with escapist sleep and a recurring image of red apples. The guitar’s sound is fleshed out by horns and a reedy bagpipe hanging in the background. A piano towards the end of the song complements these sounds with chords that sound alien yet familiar. These are familiar sounds, yet something is deeply unsettling about their arrangement. The album continues this trajectory, slowly revealing layers on layers of sorrow.
“I Was a Stranger” sharpens the album’s opening suite by joining this sadness with a strangely-perky alt-country arrangement, a gorgeous pedal steel performance surrounding Callahan’s bitter lyrics. This song finely juxtaposes a lush instrumental with the narrator’s misogyny and bile, setting up a country song that feels like a spoonful of sugar with a highly-acidic aftertaste. What follows are three dark and ugly yet beautiful songs, three of Callahan’s finest, that respectively portray animalism, an atmosphere of death and apathy, and barely-restrained misanthropy.
While these songs should be repelling, Bill Callahan is able to so articulately describe pain that it feels oddly comforting. Listening back to these songs during the coronavirus pandemic that has ravaged the world over twenty years after this album’s release, they seem to remind the listener that the pain is real and valid. Even the parts that any idealistic artist would airbrush over with hope and uplifting characteristics get a blunt examination here.
Beyond the lovely production from Jim O’Rourke
and the pleasing sound of Callahan’s vocals, the aforementioned lyrical honesty is what makes me return to this album – I hate that I see much of myself in the narrator, yet I feel compelled to examine these parts truthfully. This album announced the arrival of a true songwriting talent by stripping away the tape hiss and abrasiveness characteristic of Smog’s earlier experiments and outfitting Callahan’s dark lyrics with beautiful sounds. An excellent starting point into the weird world of Smog, and an underrated classic in my humble opinion.