Jim Cain

In April 2009, Bill Callahan released the second album under his own name called Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle. Asked about the significance of the title by Interview, Callahan replied:

“It’s a phrase that I thought of a few years ago, and wasn’t sure what to do with it. I held onto it. It seemed to make sense for this record… I guess it’s the title because I didn’t have a title, and the album was finished without that being a lyric.”

There’s no better feeling than when the solution to a problem solves another problem. By the time of the release of this album, Callahan had evolved into an experienced hand at the singer-songwriter game and knows when to go deep into the furthest and darkest corners of his wine cellar of phrases to pick the exact right vintage.

With this album, Callahan explored a new sound for his musical approach as he told Uncut in 2009:

“I recorded the basic tracks with a band…Then gave the tracks to the arranger Brian Beattie to write some string and horn parts while I was on tour in South America and North America. When I got back we put the overdubs on, in an old fashioned way – four or five string players gathered around one microphone.”

The musical expression that Callahan intended for the album is heard quite well in the album’s opening track, “Jim Cain”:

The song begins with Callahan’s light finger picking on an acoustic guitar before the full band kicks in with electric guitar, bass, drums, and keyboard as well as the prominent string section. Callahan sings the first verse:

I started out in search of ordinary things
How much of a tree bends in the wind
I started telling the story without knowing the end.

Callahan’s confidence in the opening of “Jim Cain” and Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle is on full display here. There’s an easy assurance to his singing as he fully accepts what he can do within the framework of the musical accompaniment. The confidence extends to the writing as well. The narrator’s investigation for “ordinary things” includes “how much a tree bends in the wind.” This could be a callback to thematic threads in Callahan’s own work as a nature writer (explored further in the Recliner Notes post on “Say Valley Maker”). Additionally, the third line of the song — “I started telling the story without knowing the end” — could be an allusion to the mode in Callahan’s songwriting that can be taken as a short story (as represented by “The Well,” also analyzed on Recliner Notes).

These are understandable conclusions to draw from the opening verse. Yet, as indicated by the song’s title, Callahan took his inspiration from the hard-boiled crime writer, essayist, and journalist James M. Cain, known for works such as The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, and Mildred Pierce. In the same interview with Uncut, Callahan discussed the song and Cain extensively:

“Well, the song is sort of about Jim Cain. An attempt to fantasize his life story…’James M Cain’ seemed like kind of a clunky song title so I shortened it. When I’m rehearsing my band I don’t want to have to say, ‘Let’s run through “James M Cain”: again.’ Although it does sound kind of classy now that I think about it.”

Callahan noted a number of connections between himself and Cain:

“He was born in Maryland, like me. And wanted to be a singer. Like me. But was told he wasn’t good enough. Like me. He died in alcoholic obscurity. Hmm… No comments from the Peanut Gallery! I also like that his middle name was Mallahan…James Cain was saddled with being called the father of hardboiled fiction. Apparently he didn’t like this saddle.”

Despite Cain’s dissatisfaction about his own legacy, Cain was easily able to take on the voices of the characters in his fiction. Cain’s biographer Roy Hoopes writes the following about Cain’s ear:

“Cain learned what he could do pretending to be someone else, [but] the problem now was to translate this ability into writing about the people in whom he was most interested: the average men and women one reads about in the tabloids, the people who committed crimes of passion, who were victimized by the system, and who lived their lives unconcerned about what was going on in Washington D. C. or the board rooms on Wall Street…”

Cain himself was quoted as saying: “I have no [literary] capacity to be Cain. I can’t be Cain. I can anybody except Cain.” Back to Callahan’s song: in the first line of the next verse, Callahan sings, “I used to be darker, then I got lighter, then I got dark again.” Ostensibly, Callahan is writing about Cain, but this sounds an awful lot like Callahan commenting on his own work as his output started off very dark and got lighter in tone, and then suggested elements of darkness once again. Taking this with the earlier inferences in the song to Callahan’s own past as a nature writer and a short story writer, how does this square with the notion that the song “Jim Cain” is about James M. Cain? Back to the previous Uncut interview:

“Yeah, the ‘darker, lighter’ line is a poke at how ridiculous a public perception can be for anyone, including me…I tried to write the lyrics in a bunch of different voices at once – a voice that could be his, mine, or one of his characters.”

Listening to the song with this context, Callahan’s mastery of the songwriting craft is apparent as he’s able to play off of his own self-image as a way to upend expectations. The next verse is especially palpable for this theme: 

Well, it seemed like a routine case at first
With the death of the shadow came a lightness of verse
But the darkest of nights, in truth, still dazzles
And I work myself until I’m frazzled.

Referring to something as “a routine case” an allusion to the world of a private detective as if it is one of Cain’s own characters talking. The next line — “The death of the shadow came a lightness of verse” — reveals many different angles. First, there’s been some sort of murder that connects back to the private detective aspect of the song. Yet, it’s not a typical death as it is about the demise of a shadow which results in “a lightness of verse.” Here, we’ve shifted the point of view of the song back to Callahan’s own circumstances as moving away from a depression or darkness in perspective allows his lyric writing — or “verse” — to embrace a more loose and even humorous feel. The last two lines could be a return to writing about Cain as the dark nights force him to work “until I’m frazzled.” Callahan emphasizes the need to bury oneself in work. This means no shortcuts while attempting to find closure while also implying that there needs to be something more in order to find contentment and even enlightenment. Callahan continues with the next verse:

I ended up in search of ordinary things
Like how can a wave possibly be?

Callahan is back in nature writer mode asking himself questions about the basic operations of our world, knowing that these queries will eventually reflect back on the person asking the questions. This line of questioning — the private detective again? — forces some sort of reckoning as Callahan continues:

I started running, and the concrete turned to sand
I started running, and things didn’t pan out as planned.

The sense of desperation on the part of this person is clear, whether it is Cain, one of Cain’s characters, or Callahan himself. Additionally, the phrase “concrete turned to sand” could be a reference to Neil Young’s great song “Thrasher” in which Young sings:

It was then that I knew I’d had enough
Burned my credit card for fuel
Headed out to where the pavement turns to sand
With a one way ticket to the land of truth
And my suitcase in my hand
How I lost my friends, I still don’t understand.

Both Callahan and Young write about reaching a point where there’s nothing left of the road and anything man-made has been left behind. It’s a place in which one has lost all friends and life’s meaning, leaving one exposed to the true forces of nature. It’s a desperate feeling, allowing Callahan to demonstrate such an impact in the final verse:

In case things go poorly and I not return
Remember the good things I’ve done
In case things go poorly and I not return
Remember the good things I’ve done.

Again, this sounds like the main character in a Cain-like film noir/detective story in which the detective is about to venture into a dangerous situation and is leaving instructions behind. It also sounds like the perspective of Cain from beyond the grave asking for his legacy to be remembered through his work. The song ends with Callahan singing, “Oh, oh, oh / Done me in.” There’s a finality in those words, whoever it is actually reciting them. It’s an exquisite way to end. 

Throughout the entire song, strings are impeccably apt, swelling and rescinding like waves on a beach while also providing emphasis when needed. Quoting from the Uncut interview once again, Callahan compares the strings on “Jim Cain” and the rest of Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle to the instrumentation on his previous album:

“[Woke On A Whaleheart] was more of a grab bag, like a Jimmy Webb record – an LA ‘70s songwriter type of thing. The new record is more centered in a place and unmoving. I’d say Whaleheart was songs that could be arranged or dressed in many different ways, but on Eagle, the songs can only be the one way they are. The arrangements are supposed to be ‘illustrative’ on this record. In the past, I’ve sometimes gone for arrangements that mess with the context or are intentionally blank, unguiding. But with Eagle it’s more, ‘Come in, sit down.’”

The inviting nature of the string arrangements are apparent on “Jim Cain.” They provide a fuller sound to the song as opposed to the typical rock ‘n roll instrumentation heard on most of Woke On A Whaleheart. The “Jim Cain” string arrangements recall the immediacy of the strings on Glen Campbell’s 1968 hit, “Wichita Lineman”:

The strings on “Wichita Lineman” are woozy and enigmatic, providing an appropriate accompaniment for the endlessly mysterious messages within the song. Iironically enough, the song was written by Jimmy Webb, who has commented that even he even gets lost in the Möbius strip nature of the lines, “And I need you more than want you / And I want you for all time.” Regardless, that Wichita lineman could be a character in a James M. Cain book, desperate and all alone. In fact, the lineman who  emains stuck in an unforgiving landscape for an eternity is not unlike the narrator at the end of “Jim Cain” where “the concrete turns to sand,” asking anyone who can hear to “Remember the good things I’ve done.”

The song “Jim Cain” demonstrates the power of Bill Callahan’s songwriting ability. The purposefully ambiguous nature of the character or characters within the song allows for readings that flow in and out of works of fiction and other songs. Likewise, “Jim Cain” shows off Callahan’s strength in recognizing the suitable musical accompaniment to match a certain set of lyrics. This can only be done by an artist who is in full command of the tools he has at hand.

Image: Trailer screenshot, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

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