In 2003, Bill Callahan, still releasing music under the band name Smog, put out the album Supper. The fifth track, placed at the heart of the album, is a song titled “Vessel in Vain”:
The song opens with the sounds of twin twinkling from the guitar and keyboard as Callahan sings the opening lines: “I can’t be held responsible for the things I say / For I am just a vessel in vain.” Callahan’s narrator repeats the same sentiments, insisting that the things he sees should also be included in the things he cannot be held responsible for. Not only do the narrator’s demands convey a lack of maturity or accountability, but they betray a lack of basic human decency. The narrator’s explanation is that he is simply a “vessel in vain” as if that should excuse anything.
A vessel suggests many different types of readings. It can refer to a boat or a ship as well as a container or receptacle used to hold liquid. Or, it can be a person who is used for a particular purpose, often related to a spiritual endeavor. All of these are intriguing options in the context of Callahan’s song, but the phrase in full is a “vessel in vain,” a reference to something that is without use or functionless. Therefore the narrator’s contention is that he shouldn’t be held responsible for any of his actions because, well, he’s hopeless, so why bother. It’s a pessimistic and even nihilistic way of living a life in this world.
In the next verse, Callahan clarifies the usage of “vessel” for the song:
No boat out on no ocean
No name there on no hull.
It is a ship, but one without a name or even a hull with which to cut through the waves. This imagery recalls the black-hulled ships from The Odyssey or even “phantom ships with phantom sails” in “Days Between” by the Grateful Dead. In any case, the narrator underscores that his own life happens without purpose or even meaning. It’s a boat without direction that can’t even float. But next comes a turn in the perspective of the song:
And it’s not a strain at all to remember
Those that I’ve left behind
They’re all standing right here beside me now
And most of them with a smile.
Despite a hollow life (or an empty vessel?), the narrator is able to recall that others did occupy his existence with him, including family and friends. Despite the narrator’s best efforts of leaving loved ones behind, they are still with him, on the boat, and some are even encouraging him to find direction and meaning on this voyage “with a smile.”
The music of the song builds to a crescendo as Callahan sings:
My ideals have got me on the run
Towards my connection with everyone
My ideals have got me on the run
It’s my connection with everyone.
This chorus is beautifully sung and performed and also perfectly accompanies the epiphany that the song’s narrator undergoes. The vessel in vain himself realizes that he needs connection with others in order to live and have purpose in his life. Those family and friends who joined him “with a smile” are necessary for his existence. Concurrently, with this understanding, there’s a point of ambivalence as the narrator’s “ideals” are forcing him to be “on the run.” Usually when someone is on the run, it means they are avoiding capture. So the standards that the narrator sets for himself is what is pushing him to flee. At the same time, these ideals are what allows him to connect with his family and friends, a conundrum to be sure! Callahan ends the song recognizing this paradox by singing, almost with a rueful laugh, “Such free reign / For a vessel in vain.” There’s so much happening for the narrator within “Vessel in Vain.” He’s able to come to an understanding about the importance of other people in his life and without them, he is living a life without purpose or meaning. Yet, what is a life without ideals? One wants to live with principles and a good taste. Every moment of realization by the song’s narrator is offset by uncertainty and hesitation.
A few years after Callahan wrote and recorded “Vessel in Vain,” he made a number of shifts in his life as detailed in a previous Recliner Notes post. He left Chicago for Austin, TX. He made the choice to drop Smog as his band name and to instead release music under his own name. 2005’s A River Ain’t Too Much to Love is the final album before the name-change. The last song on Smog’s last album is a compelling contrast to “Vessel in Vain”:
“Let Me See the Colts” begins with Callahan playing two chords on the guitar accompanied by the incomparable Jim White who provides a basic percussion pattern. Callahan sings:
Knocked on your door at dawn
With a spark in my heart
I dragged you from your bed
And said “Let me see the colts
That will run next year.”
I show them to a gambling man
Thinking of the future.
As in “Vessel in Vain,” the song’s narrator is contemplating his place in the world through metaphor, but the message in “Let Me See the Colts” is much more simple and direct than in the prior song. Gambling on horse racing is about trying to predict outcomes, but projecting what will happen in the future ultimately is an impossible task. Regardless, the narrator is looking forward to what is to come as he has “a spark” in his heart. There’s optimism when he considers his potential destiny, and he is determined to do so by repeatedly insisting throughout the song, “Let me see the colts.” On the contrary, the narrator in “Vessel in Vain” is hesitant about his outlook and is deeply reluctant to even begin that type of scrutiny.
A bit later in the song, Callahan sings questions directed at he song’s narrator: “Have you been drinking? / No, nor sleeping.” The narrator is not plagued by alcohol and no, he is not dreaming either. His mind is clear. Then Callahan sings: “The all-seeing all-knowing eye is dog tired.” This could be an allusion to the type of omnipotent narrative voice that Callahan employs in songs such as “Vessel in Vain.” That’s not to be found in this song as this narrator assures that he “just wants to see the colts.”
As Callahan repeatedly sings that he’s “thinking about the future,” a musical note sounds as if reinforcing the narrator’s clarion call. At first it feels like it could be a horn of some sort. But since Callahan recorded A River Ain’t Too Much to Love at the studio of Willie Nelson which is located outside of Callahan’s new home in Austin, TX, it’s safe to wonder if this note is played by a harmonica. It sounds an awful lot like Mickey Raphael, Nelson’s long-time harmonica player. Listen to the heartbreaking “Hands on the Wheel” on Nelson’s classic 1975 album Red Headed Stranger at mark 1:13 for the classic Raphael harmonica sound:
Callahan quiets the music momentarily to sing the bridge:
We walked out through
The dew dappled brambles
And sat upon the fence
Is there anything as still as sleeping horses?
It’s a beautiful aside as the narrator comments on the gentleness of everything in his view. With the ending of the bridge, the main musical thrust continues. As the harmonica calls out, a fiddle enters and seems to be crying in response to the harmonica. But there’s no sadness in this music as it continues to build and build as the narrator considers the future. The band is playing only two chords, but the simplicity of the music should not take away from the power of the performance. It’s elemental music. If you could do the aural equivalent of squint, “Let Me See the Colts” could be a rousing, U2-type anthem. But this isn’t U2. It’s Smog. And though it’s Smog, it’s the last song on the last album that Smog will ever release.
Callahan is putting the “all-seeing all-knowing eye” of Smog aside to embrace a simple, more direct musical approach and narrative voice as demonstrated by “Let Me See the Colts.” He is pointing to a new direction for his work with optimism. He is thinking about the future. He is no longer scared about the family and friends mentioned in “Vessel in Vain.” He cares about the practicalities of life and taking on the gambles that we must during life with a spark in his heart, embracing the optimism he feels for the future.
Image: Baker, A. H. (Austin Hart), 1852-, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons.
2 thoughts on “Let Me See the Colts”