unbest 2012

Brady Hall on Smog’s A River Ain’t Too Much to Love (2005)
(iTunes)

I used to be obsessed with new music. Every year I listened to dozens upon dozens of freshly printed albums as soon as I could get my hands on them. I would discuss and debate the merits of these albums with my friends and coworkers until they banished me to the world of online discussion boards. A pen and pad of paper was always kept next to the radio when I worked to record the names of new songs played by my local radio station and my weekly All Songs Considered podcasts. Attending live shows of touring bands was almost always where any spare cash I happened to have went towards. Then when December rolled around I would spend an unseemly amount of time reading every best-music-of-the-year list I could find and compare it to my own. There were very few albums on those lists that I hadn’t listened to.

The last two years I haven’t made my own best-music-of-the-year lists. I’ve skimmed over some of the lists from a few trusted sources, but I’ve listened to almost none of the albums that they thought I should. In 2012 I picked up exactly two new releases, my radio stayed complacently tuned to NPR, and I only attended live shows when my favorite artists came to town. I don’t know to where my passion for music had fled or precisely when it had deserted me, but it was undoubtedly gone. Was the quality of recent music declining? Probably not. Were musicians starting to lose their innovation causing most new music to sound too similar? Probably not. Was the reason for my dissatisfaction internal? Probably. Whatever the reason, it was gone. 

However, after smoldering for the last two years my fire for music has been rekindled by the one and only Bill Callahan. 
   
I had first discovered him when his 2009 album Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle came out. Despite loving the album I didn’t delve into his back catalog (much of it released under the name Smog) until last year, and when I finally did it was with 2005’s A River Ain’t Too Much to Love. At first I thought it very similar to his 2009 album, which means I loved it, but despite the beauty of the songwriting and complimentary minimalist musical arrangement on the later album River revealed itself to be a far superior beast. 

Callahan’s songwriting is pure poetry. “Palimpsest,” the 2005 album’s opening song, is an excellent example. Callahan half speaks and half sings his poem in a deep but smooth voice of a gruff angel:

Winter weather is not my soul
But the biding for spring…

Why’s everybody looking at me
Like there’s something fundamentally wrong
Like I’m a southern bird
That stayed north too long

Winter exposes the nests
And I’m gone

Every song on A River Ain’t Too Much to Love is a gold mine of achingly beautiful verse. The production on this album is its own kind of poetry that compliments Callahan’s personal songwriting perfectly. Mostly the thoughtful picking of an acoustic guitar sparsely supplemented with a piercing violin here, an echoing whistle there, it’s by turns mesmerizing and haunting. Near the end of “Say Valley Maker,” a heart-wrenching song about lost love, Callahan mutters the line “Oh, I cantered out here / now I’m galloping back,” and with that the music picks up its pace and gallops to the end of the song. 

This album moved me in a way that others haven’t done for a very long time. With every additional listen the once dormant fire inside me blazed stronger. I have high hopes for the this year’s coming musical releases, but even if they fails to move me like the last two years of music have failed to move me, I know that personally 2013 will be a great year for music because there are still plenty of Smog/Bill Callahan albums for me to experience.

Brady Hall is a student in Portland, Ore.