Universal Applicant

Apocalypse, Bill Callahan’s 2011 album, begins with two songs, “Drover” and “Baby’s Breath” (explored previously on Recliner Notes), that can’t help be read as extended metaphors about the founding and settling of the American West. Those two songs are followed by “America!”, a hilarious accounting of reasons why to love the United States. The humor, though, is undercut by the foreboding, minor chord vamp that accompanies Callahan’s vocals. The next song on Apocalypse is “Universal Applicant” which, as Callahan told the New York Times in a 2011 interview, marks “the turning point of the record”:

The song begins with yet another up-tempo groove, driven by Callahan’s guitar and a flute with jazzy overtones as played by Luke Franco. They are soon joined by Brian Beattie’s bass, an insistent shaker, and a repetitive, tinkling piano part performed by Jonathan Meiburg that builds anticipation for what’s coming next. The piano riff has the same determined repetition as the piano at the beginning of LCD Soundsystem’s all-time classic “All My Friends.” A second guitar played by Matt Kinsey enters “Universal Applicant” and latches on to a propulsive riff that is reminiscent of a John Lee Hooker blues drone. Taken as a whole, the collective instrumentation is similar in the recurring ceaselessness of Steve Reich’s 1978 record Music for 18 Musicians:

Callahan begins singing:

Without work’s calving increments
Or love’s coltish punch
What would I be?

The opening of this song is a reckoning for the narrator. He describes the devotions of his life in terms of livestock, namely calves and colts. They are amusing comparisons that also ties “Universal Applicant” to the opening songs of Apocalypse, especially the cattle that serve as a stand-in for the narrator of “Drover.” Even in this account of his life, the narrator of “Universal Applicant” can’t move away from the livestock metaphors. Taking away work and love, who is he? Callahan answers:

An animaless isthmus
Beyond the sea.

In the opening verse, Callahan’s vocals are subtly effective, quiet, yet delivered in a cadence that expertly works as a counterpart to the rhythm of the instrumentation playing behind him. In these lines, Callahan whimsically acknowledges the animal metaphors he has used up to this point, but now has no use for them by describing the narrator as “animalless.” The narrator also likens himself to an isthmus, a land feature that is usually surrounded by water on two sides while, at the same time, linking two larger land masses. But not so with this isthmus as it is “beyond the sea.” Thus, it is not able to connect anything to anyone. The narrator is in a solitary space. 

At this point, the music changes to a major chord yet the piano sounds as if it is prepared for something else. Callahan sings over this new musical passage:

Oh bees only swarm when they’re looking for a home
So I followed them
I found the bees nest in the buffalo’s chest
I drank their honey, that milk.

The animal metaphors have returned; we are no longer animalless! Joking aside, a beautiful set of imagery is on display within these lines as Callahan establishes the feeling of a fable. The narrator follows a swarm of bees as they search for a home, implying that the narrator shares the same need. Where is this home? The bees have created a nest inside the chest of a buffalo. The buffalo symbolizes freedom for many Native Americans. In this case, the buffalo must be dead since that would be the only way the bee’s could nest within it. Furthermore, the narrator is able to consume the bees’ milk and honey which often serves as a sign of fertility. Within this new home found inside the buffalo’s chest, what does the narrator taste? Callahan answers this question:

I’ve seen this taste cased in almost every face
That’s working to see it in all.

The narrator tries to describe the taste of the bee’s milk and honey found within the buffalo’s chest. He likens it not to another taste, but instead compares it to the reaction found in “almost every face.” He is able to share others’ sense of freedom, as symbolized by the buffalo, and the feeling of hope that comes with the fertility of the milk and honey. Yet, the narrator describes the taste as a kind of virus as it is “working” in every face. Could this be an indication to the “universal applicant” as named in the title of the song? The answer to this question is as yet unanswered. Regardless, Callahan is conveying a complex series of characterizations in these lines. Finally, Callahan gives voice to the narrator’s ultimate feeling from feasting on the bees’ milk and honey inside the buffalo’s chest by simply singing, “This kidnaps me.” With these words, a few of the musicians stop playing while those that remain continue by producing the previously heard repetitive sound. Suddenly, a strange percussive noise joins in, sounding like someone hitting a cardboard box. Callahan resumes singing:

Tied up in a boat and kicked off to sea
In tight baby binding technique.

The sensation that the narrator feels from this taste is in fact a literal action within the world of the song. He has been kidnapped by forces beyond his control, or perhaps it’s a self-kidnapping. Either way, the narrator is constrained  — compared by Callahan to a wrapped baby — and left adrift in a small boat. Swaddling a baby provides it with comfort so that it can sleep. The narrator no longer wants this feeling, and he attempts to escape: “My arm chews through the swaddling slings.” This works as a metaphor of the narrator breaking free of those things that humans consume for comfort as a way to keep the world at a distance, including booze, drugs, television, the internet. The narrator no longer wants these so-called comforts and views them as constraints. He desires freedom. Thus released, the narrator looks over himself and finds:

There’s a flare gun in my hand
I point it straight and point it high
And to the universe it applies.

It’s a moment of epiphany for the narrator. He has released himself from the self-imposed restraints that the world provides and has found independence. The flare gun is the narrator’s announcement of his release. In a beautiful turn of phrase, Callahan tells us the narrator’s intention: “To the universe it applies.” It’s a kind of all-points bulletin to each and every corner of existence, known and unknown, declaring that the narrator has freed himself from all limitations, whether self-imposed or created by the world around him. 

Then, Callahan imitates the sound of the flare gun — “fffft…pooh.” Shooting a flare gun must be an immensely satisfying sensation. The light from the flare illuminates the world “in lavender.” The narrator has another realization: “Where I’d been was my goal.” He understands now that these places and things he had encountered were essential stages in his journey, a sort of hero’s journey. He views the animals with renewed importance:

I saw the calf
I saw the bees
I saw the buffalo and the colt
Well I’m sure they all laughed at me
At me so low in my boat.

Behind Callahan’s vocals, the music proceeds as before, but the sound seems to be anticipating something new. Callahan continues:

The flare burned and fell
The boat burned as well.

Callahan laughs at this new incident as if the narrator is better equipped to take setbacks like this more in stride than before the shooting of the flare. The music builds and builds before the song reaches its breaking point. The music woozily melts away from the insistent pace as Callahan begins a rhyming game to end all rhyming games:

And the punk
And the lunk
And the drunk
And the skunk
And the hunk
And the monk in me
All sunk.

As the narrator slowly sinks into the water, the music takes on the sound of being underwater with a dazed, meandering feeling. It recalls the soundtrack that Yo La Tengo created for underwater documentaries by filmmaker Jean Painlevé called The Sounds of the Sounds of Science:

As the underwater musical passage continues, the piano alters with Meiburg playing a tinkling figure that is reminiscent of the intermittent piano part from the 1977 Neil Young song “Will to Love”:

Like “Universal Applicant,” “Will to Love” is a hallucinatory tale that also partially takes place underwater as the narrator in the Neil Young song imagines himself as an ocean fish swimming upstream, willing himself to find true love. 

“Universal Applicant” breaks open as the narrator’s ship burns beneath him, and he sinks into the ocean after his epiphany as represented by the flare in the sky. The musical tone has shifted. Callahan stressed the importance of creating this kind of underwater, dream-like atmosphere when designing albums in a 2013 interview with Grantland:

“I think about things in a more abstract way — colors and moods and landscapes and shading and stuff like that. “

The pivot point of the flare gun going off within the song also marks a critical juncture in the album Apocalypse as a whole. Callahan notes this during a 2011 New York Times interview:

“The record is kind of, like, blind, or searching, until that point, and then the flare goes off and the music stops for a second. And from that point on, it’s like, the music is illuminated…There is a storyline there that is speaking to some part of your body.”

Up until the shooting of the flare gun, the narrative of Apocalypse is highly metaphorical, connecting the individual’s point of view with larger themes about America. As Callahan says in the quote above, the search for meaning that is instilled within the first half of Apocalypse disintegrates as the boat burns beneath the narrator of “Universal Applicant” with the music matching that melting feeling. Starting from the point of the flare gun going off, Apocalypse is less concerned with allegory and instead takes on more of a single person perspective with the album speaking “to some part of your body” as Callahan states. The remaining songs on Apocalypse are less outward-looking, but instead emphasize the feelings of the personal and what the individual can control within his own world immediately around him. These include less heavy and warmer songs such as “Riding for the Feeling” and “Free’s.” The narrator for the former song says that riding for the feeling is “is the fastest way to reach the shore.” There’s a mixing of metaphors here, but the focus on what the body feels allows the individual to navigate through water without a burned boat. In “Free’s,” this song’s narrator explores a newfound independence, stretching out and asking,  “Is this what it means to be free? Or is this what it means to belong to the free?” The music too in these remaining is less burdened and reflects a lighter touch. The buoyant feel culminates in the masterful and final song on the album, “One Fine Morning.” 

“Universal Applicant” is a masterful yet curious achievement. Callahan seems to be instructing us to do away with allegory and any kind of doomed thinking about the sins of America. It’s as if he is advising, “Take your own flare gun and burn the boat you’re standing on in mid-sail. Do not be beholden to anything you relied on before. Let go of your previously held beliefs.” Yet that same action by Callahan serves as a negation of his own work. “Drover” and “Baby’s Breath” are powerful statements not to be ignored. Thus, Apocalypse is reflective of Callahan’s own inner struggle between concerns about the outside world and the urge to focus on the personal. “Universal Applicant” displays a decisive moment of this conflict through both lyrical and musical expression.

Image: Charlie Phillips from London, UK, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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