From the Rivers to the Ocean

After 15 years of releasing music professionally under the name Smog, Bill Callahan put out an album using his own name: 2007’s Woke on a Whaleheart. The shift in names was an intentional act by Callahan as he told Pitchfork in 2007:

“I have narrowed my focus with the name change. There is no name anymore, I am just a figure in a landscape that huddles together with other figures. I will concentrate on playing guitar, on lyrics and on singing. I am a part of things, I am not the encompassing Smog. I will leave the wide-openness to others.”

Over the course of Smog’s discography, the music ranged from Callahan overdubbing everything himself to live performances by a band in a room. For A River Ain’t Too Much to Love, the last Smog album, Callahan embraced a stripped down approach that resulted in an arid sound. The change away from Smog not only represents a dropping of the mask, it also marks a transformation in artistic approach, allowing Callahan more freedom to outside influence in the creation of his music. In the same Pitchfork interview, Callahan further delineates what that meant for Woke on a Whaleheart:

“Neil [Hagerty] said, ‘This is my chance to make the record I’ve always wanted to hear you make.’ I gave Neil free reign to arrange and produce the record. This was a first for me, to give over control completely. It was a relief, but was not as easy as I thought it would be. It is hard to do nothing! Neil is an old-school producer, the type where the singer isn’t even supposed to stick around after his or her vocal tracking. I finally realized this halfway through the experience, so I would leave the room to go read on the couch at the other side of the building. Because what I thought were the basic needs of what I’d come to know as a ‘record I was happy with,’ were, in truth, not as innocuous as I thought. I thought I was saying, ‘Look out for that cat in the road,’ but I was actually saying, ‘Drive over that way and then back over that way and that cat will still be alive.’”

Neil Hagerty is a songwriter and guitar player known for his work in bands such as Royal Trux and The Howling Hex. As can be inferred from Callahan’s comments, Hagerty’s work is much more maximalist in sound than the recent output by Smog. By handing production decisions for Woke on a Whaleheart over to Hagerty, Callahan is able to paint himself out of the corner he found himself in with Smog. The radical aesthetic shift that is Woke on a Whaleheart can be heard in the opening track, “From the Rivers to the Ocean”:

The song opens with a piano playing a passage in a minor key before an acoustic guitar and drums enter after the shift to a major key. Even this small snippet of music immediately feels like a different sound for Callahan. He starts to sing, “When,” and then he pauses. There’s an echo effect on Callahan’s vocals as he sings that single word that makes him sound far away, booming over the music being played by the assembled musicians. The song continues as Callahan repeats the first word again and subsequently completes the phrase: 

When you were blind
You’d touch things for their shape
Have faith in wordless knowledge.

These are curious opening lines. Is Callahan directly addressing his audience? Is he telling them that although the music sounds different than what he created before, they should “have faith in wordless knowledge” and trust his musical instincts? Or, could Callahan be talking to himself as he surrenders the decision-making process to Hagerty? He could be reassuring himself that the “wordless knowledge” he possesses is enough to count on someone else. Perhaps Callahan is taking on something new as a playwright shifts to screenwriting and tells themselves that film is a visual medium. Callahan could be directing the writer inside him to accept the “wordless knowledge” that the musician in him believes. In addition to these theories, the lines could represent the song’s narrator addressing a lover. As the song progresses, Callahan drops the singing and speaks the line: “Well, I could tell you about the river.” The accompaniment builds and builds before Callahan resumes singing and says, “Or we could just get in.” The narrator is again asking for acceptance as he eschews any attempt at a description and instead invites the lover to simply jump in the body of water. This is as good of a demonstration of having “faith in wordless knowledge” as any.

When Callahan says in his speaking voice, “Well, I can tell you about the river,” Callahan is winking to his audience because they know he has a thing for rivers, using them as a central image a few times before. Callahan was asked about his continued usage of river metaphors in this 2006 interview:

“I tend to want to have a unifying theme to a bunch of songs I’m working on. I noticed that, unconsciously, rivers or water had sprung up in three or four of the numbers. Then it became conscious and I thought maybe I should let the river get in there as much as possible. It kind of naturally inserted itself in so many places and I was very happy about that.”

When he sings “Well, I can tell you about the river,” instead of going off on a long explanation similar to the above quotation, he finishes the phrase by simply singing, “Or we could just get in.” What a relief! The music shifts to a waltz tempo in 3/4 time as Callahan goes on to sing:

We are swimming in the rivers
Of the rains of our days before we knew.

It’s becoming clear that the song’s narrator is addressing a lover with the river as a stand-in. The river signifies everything that led up to the time that the narrator and his lover became a union. It sweeps up the galaxies that make up both characters, including family members and lovers as well as universal feelings felt by both, such as happiness, loss, desire, defeat, passion, alienation, attraction, and despair. The music shifts back to the previous tempo as the narrator admits that he can’t actually put these feelings into words: “And it’s hard to explain / What I was doing or thinking before you.” A fiddle slips in and accompanies Callahan as he sings these lines. He continues:

I guess I was a decent man holding on
Following the river from above like a bird
With faith in wordless knowledge.

The narrator can see the river as a whole because he imagines himself as a bird looking down from the sky above. And what does he say when he sees this all-encompassing river? That he has “faith in wordless knowledge.” The narrator is able to take in everything that the river stands for without any words being communicated like a bird reading the course of a river spread out over the contours of the world. Callahan’s echoing of key phrases pushes the song forward and builds momentum. Callahan continues:

And the fallen stars, they flew too
And I knew they were sewing something
Something well-made, made for me and you.

The narrator personifies the stars as tailors or dressmakers, saying that he “knew” this to be the case, yet another instance of having “faith in wordless knowledge.” Furthermore, the narrator admits the difficulty in describing who he was before meeting this significant other, so he tries again:

The city was a fist
I lived on its wrist
And I took myself a good long look around.

The narrator tells about accumulating experiences and learning through action. As previously mentioned, Callahan occasionally shifts to spoken word for a line or two and then moves back to singing as the melody takes on country music flourishes at times. The song then comes to the bridge as the music shifts to a minor key:

And the river grew higher and wider
Deeper and darker as I was closing in.

Hagerty’s production is noticeable here: complex and turbulent. The piano especially builds in intensity, matching the feelings of the metaphorical river which is gathering strength as the couple comes together. Callahan sings:

And it led me to you which led me to say
“Let’s get…”

There’s a pause in Callahan’s vocals before background singers join to finish the phrase: “Let’s get…in.” The music shifts back to its waltz-like mode as before with Callahan singing:

We got in the river and it groped us
Made us think of sex between us
At a time in our lives old before we knew.

After hints earlier in the song, the narrator outright compares the river with the intimate coupling between himself and his lover. Callahan’s use of words is curious as the river itself “gropes” the pair. He also says that despite their relationship still being at an early stage, sex between them feels timeless or “old before we knew.” This is another instance of Callahan emphasizing the theme of having “faith in wordless knowledge” as sex is the ultimate example of unspoken connection. Callahan goes on to repeat himself again:

We were swimming in the rivers
Of the rains of our days before we knew
And it’s hard to explain
What I was doing or thinking before you.

This segment is a duplication of what he said before, but it’s not exactly a chorus because it doesn’t act like the climax of the song. Within “From the Rivers to the Ocean,” each line builds on the line that came before, creating a new segment that builds on the segment that came before. Each repetition serves to ground the listener and then set up whatever is stated next. There’s a push and pull that occurs when a singer alternates between a repetition of lines and then the introduction of new words. Van Morrison is a singer known for using this kind of repetition for emphasis and insistence, exemplified best in “You Don’t Pull No Punches, But You Don’t Push the River” from the sublime 1974 album Veedon Fleece:

Like Callahan, Morrison utilizes a river to describe the promise of a new relationship, though Morrison goes further than Callahan as he takes both the river and the relationship as starting points for a poetic quest for something called the “Veedon Fleece.” Putting the mythological aspect of the song aside, Morrison repeats many key phrases throughout the song as a way of moving the song forward. He makes this narrative gesture explicit through his repetition of the line, “You don’t pull no punches, but you don’t push the river.” The push and pull of the relationship in the song is reflected in the pull of the re-stating of phrases and the push of the introduction of new lines. Morrison’s use of the river as the metaphorical fulcrum is exemplified in Morrison’s line: “Goin’ as much with the river as not.” There’s a push/pull to the current of the river that matches the back and forth of the flow of lyrics in a song. 

Returning to Callahan’s push/pull in “From the Rivers to the Ocean,” the introduction of a new idea after a repetition can be seen in these lines:

And that beautiful thing you said lying in bed
About all the things I could think of at the end of the day
But of all the places my mind could go
It always comes loping back to you.

These gorgeous lines capture the narrator’s moment of realization that he is completely enraptured by love. This epiphany is emphasized by an electric guitar ringing in and playing an extended solo. At the end of this passage, strings swell up marking the return of Callahan’s voice into the song. Of course, he sings another repetitions — ” We are swimming in the rivers / Of the rains of our days before we knew” — which leads once again to a new thought:

So meet me in the ocean
And we’ll ride the waves from the rivers to the ocean
Each wave a lounging panther sharp-eyed and true.

The comparison of each wave to a “lounging panther” is hilariously and strangely accurate. This kind of outlandish characterization is necessary in order to illustrate the unique geographical field that marks a river meeting the ocean. The nature writer Barry Lopez writes about this space in his 1980 book River Notes : The Dance of Herons:

“It is to the thought of the river’s banks that I most frequently return, their wordless emergence at a headwaters, the control they urge on the direction of the river, mile after mile, and their disappearance here on the beach as the river enters the ocean. It occurs to me that at the very end the river is suddenly abandoned, that just before it’s finished the edges disappear completely, that in this moment a whole life is revealed.”

For Callahan, the river is the wordless knowledge of sex which invariably leads to the ocean. Callahan does not attempt to describe the ocean. He’s not able to go there since the relationship the narrator is describing is only at its beginning. Lopez is willing to try, saying that the river abandons itself and dissipates into the ocean and reveals a “whole life.” For Morrison, the river acts as the jumping off place for a mythological quest. He says that life is an ongoing search for discovery. Lopez doesn’t want to get as specific as Morrison. For him, life is an end to itself. Returning to “From the Rivers to the Ocean,” life itself is the inevitable conclusion to the song. Callahan doesn’t say those words out loud. It’s unnecessary. What’s the biggest takeaway of the song according to Callahan? The answer lies in the last words he sings: “Have faith in wordless knowledge.” 

Image: Kristiangillies, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Common.

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