Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Natural Grace

I was hipped to Bill Callahan's album Sometimes I wish we were an eagle by Matt at why birds don't talk, and it's one of the most beautiful albums I've heard in a long time. The instrumentation on all the songs is terrific, and even though the vocals are, let's say, not exactly ordinary, everything works together really well. You can sample the songs at the link above, and I would absolutely recommend it. A terrific conceptual theme runs through the album too, which is that there is beauty and meaning in ordinary life and in the natural world.

The first song on the album, "Jim Cain," is written from the perspective of noir fiction author James M. Cain, who wrote, among other things, The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity. The first line of the song, "I started out in search of ordinary things," reminds me of the opening passage of Mildred Pierce in which Cain describes with terrific detail Mildred's husband Bert hanging nets to support the weight of the fruit on their avocado trees; an everyday event, which becomes charged with meaning as you read on and find out that their marriage is ending. This act winds up being his last real act as Mildred's husband.

"Eid Ma Clack Shaw" follows, with notions of love, memory, and dreams entangled throughout. This sparks interest in the philosophy student in me; all three of these phenomena share a similar ontological profile. Essentially, all three are events which occur only within the minds of people-- there are no dreams, memories, or love "out there" in the world independent of the experiencers, and yet all three are nonetheless entirely natural and meaningful. In the song the narrator "dreams the perfect song" and writes it down in a half-sleep state, only to find that when he awakes what he has written is nonsense. Are we supposed to infer that love and memory also share a disconnect with the waking world?

"The Wind and the Dove" is (as far as can make out) about the interconnectedness of the natural world as a metaphor for the interconnectedness of people: "Somewhere between the wind and the dove/Lies all I sought in you/And when the wind just dies, when the wind just dies/And the dove won't rise/From your window sill."

"Rococo Zephyr" pursues the theme of natural grace most explicitly, and does so beautifully. It's my favorite song on the album; the music is fantastic, and the lyrics are light and thoughtful at the same time. Natural metaphors for human relationships abound: "She lay beside me/Like a branch from, a tender willow tree/I was as still/As still as a river could be/When a rococo zephyr/Swept over her and me." The end of the song ("I used to be sort of blind/Now I can sort of see") apes the words of "Amazing Grace" but without the certainty that religious sentiment provides. The natural is beautiful, but beautifully imperfect as well.

"Too Many Birds": reminds me of a Wallace Stevens or William Carlos Williams poem. The lyrics are spare and descriptive of an object of perception (in this case a bird) but there is an implicit parallel being drawn between the object and the perceiver.

"My Friend" departs from the theme discussed here, but has a terrific line: "Now I'm not saying we're cut from the same tree/But like two pieces of the gallows/The pillar and the beam."

"All Thoughts are Prey to Some Beast" is another use of natural metaphors for the human experience: "The leafless tree looked like a brain/The birds within were all the thoughts and desires within me."

"Invocation of Ratiocination" is a (sort of strange) instrumental, but anyone familiar with church services will think "prayer" when they see "invocation," only what's being invoked here is not a deity or spirit, but human reason.

This emphasis on reason over faith is borne out further in "Faith/Void," the last track on the album. The sparse lyrical structure, musical simplicity and the repetition of the phrase "It's time to put God away," reminds me of the repetitive choruses used in Evangelical Church services, but the content is the opposite: here is not summoning the presence of a god, but recognizing the absence of one. The song doesn't argue against the concept of god (although it does make an oblique reference to the problem of evil), but instead is the expression of a conclusion already reached: "This is the end of faith, no more must I strive/To find my peace, to find my peace in a lie."

Amen, Bill.