One Fine Morning

In a 2019 entry of Nick Cave’s indelible Red Hand Series in which he responds to questions from fans, Cave was asked about his favorite songs. He instead shared a list of what he called “hiding songs,” those songs that he felt were written exclusively for him. Cave further defined hiding songs by saying that they:

“Serve as a form of refuge for me and have done so for years. They are songs that I can pull over myself, like a child might pull the bed covers over their head, when the blaze of the world becomes too intense. I can literally hide inside them. They are the essential pillars that hold up the structure of my artistic world.”

The list of hiding songs that Cave provides are by musical titans that are not unexpected, including Leonard Cohen, Nina Simone, and Bob Dylan. Their songs are from eras that make sense to have an impact on Cave at a younger age. The only song that is contemporary to the timing of Cave’s post and the only song released in the 21st century is “One Fine Morning,” the final song Bill Callahan’s 2011 album Apocalypse:

In a 2011 interview with The Guardian, Callahan shared his vision for the tone of the song:

“I wanted that open feeling Westerns give you…They’re kind of minimalist because the landscape is so blank and stark, which means that when people appear, they stand out, and their personalities are magnified because there’s nothing much else around.”

This impression is presented immediately as the song starts with Callahan quietly strumming his acoustic guitar. A flare of electric guitar played by Matt Kinsey is discharged in the background. As happens when enveloped by the landscape of the American West, it’s hard to determine how far away the source of that sound is. Callahan begins singing:

One fine morning
I’m going to ride out.

There’s a lot of echo on Callahan’s vocals, as if they are bouncing off a rock formation or the sides of a canyon wall. He repeats the same lines which connect to a 2019 Callahan interview with The Quietus:

“I’m the type of person that every day is a new day, and every album is a new album, and every party is a new party… I think that we are given this gift as cautious humans with night and day, the sun going away and coming back, we’re given this gift of a blank slate, really. That’s what every morning feels like to me.”

The feel of the music and lyrics as well as Callahan’s delivery of these opening lines provide the hopeful sense of promise and the feeling of riding out to greet the morning. A piano joins in as Callahan sings:

Just me and the skeleton crew
We’re gonna ride out in a country kind of silence
We’re gonna ride out in a country silence.

The music throughout “One Fine Morning” is reminiscent of the title track of Van Morrison’s 1968 tour de force Astral Weeks:

Both are built on a simple two-chord structure, but utilize the dynamics of the band and vocals to generate tension and momentum. There’s also a lyrical connection between the two songs as the ambience that Callahan creates with his phrase “country kind of silence” recalls Morrison’s lines:

To lay me down
In silence easy
To be born again.

There’s a summoning of the sublime that’s happening within “One Fine Morning” and “Astral Weeks” that basks in a specific sensation of silence. Callahan continues singing by repeating the opening yet again — “Yeah, one fine morning” — but then shifts to a spoken word delivery for the next three lines:

Yeah, it’s all coming back to me now
My apocalypse
My apocalypse.

The “country kind of silence” that the song’s narrator experiences during the “fine morning” jolts his memory about an apocalypse. It’s not the apocalypse, according to the narrator, it’s my apocalypse. This is not a global, end-of-the-world scenario affecting millions of people, but rather, a personal account. It’s hard to read the emotions of the narrator when recalling his particular apocalypse due to Callahan’s straight-faced, spoken delivery. Is he crestfallen? It doesn’t seem to be the case; he seems to be more wistful and even bemused. The electric guitar returns with another flicker, closer in proximity this time. Callahan continues singing:

The curtain rose and burned in the morning sun
The curtain rose and burned in the morning sun
And the mountains
And the mountains bowed down
In the morning sun
Like a ballet of the heart
And the mountains bowed down like a ballet
In the morning sun.

The lyric “the curtain rose” suggests that the landscape serves as a theater presenting a performance on a stage, but, in this case, after the curtain rises, it is immediately burned by the rising sun. This performance will never end as the curtain will never close. Despite the mountains bowing down as if indicating the end of the show, it will never be completed. It is now “a ballet of the heart”; the permanent kind of performance that is life. 

During this verse, Neal Morgan begins a series of percussion fills. They serve as embellishment without providing a steady beat. Additionally, there’s no regular bassline as the bass also comes in and out of the song. At the very end of the verse, there’s a sweet figure from the electric guitar, a gentle sound extenuating the “fine morning.” Callahan continues with the next verse:

And the baby and we all lay in state
And the baby and we all lay in state
And I said “Hey, no more drovering”
I say “Hey, no more drovering.”

This verse contains explicit references to two previous songs on Apocalypse. “The baby and we all lay in state” alludes to the song “Baby’s Breath” in which a baby dies as a symbolic price paid for the original sin of the clearing of the American West. Also, the line “Hey, no more drovering,” is a direct gesture towards “Drover,” the first song on Apocalypse in which the solitary cowboy is conflated with the landscape (both “Drover” and “Baby’s Breath” are analyzed in great detail on Recliner Notes). Additionally, the earlier image of the curtain being burned up by the rising sun could be a reference towards a different Apocalypse song “Universal Applicant” in which a flare, shot by the song’s narrator, burns the boat out from under which he is standing (also explored on Recliner Notes). There’s one last indication to another song on Apocalypse in “One Fine Morning” when Callahan sings later in the song, “Will I feel you riding on my back?,” it points towards “Riding for the Feeling.”

Taking together the various allusions within “One Fine Morning,” it suggests that when Callahan speaks the words “my apocalypse” earlier in the song, he is actually saying, “my Apocalypse,” a literal reference to the album he is currently making. There is no narrator within “One Fine Morning.” It is actually Callahan riding out in the morning and considering everything in front of him while also thinking about the songs he has composed for the album Apocalypse. In an interview for The Rumpus in 2011, Callahan confirms the removal of editorial distancing between himself and the material while also saying much more:

“In ‘One Fine Morning’ the apocalypse is the record Apocalypse and also Man vs. Nature and vice versa! Perceptions collapsing or is it just the angle of light and shadow as the sun moves through the sky? I wanted to make an inward record, one that just kept going inward and inward deeper in. But to present it in an outward fashion, that is, in the style of Western music. Eastern music carries a different attitude. There is no focus on the performer. The performers are often seated, impassive. The music is the thing. And by being inward they are of course being outward, universal—by removing the self from the equation they are achieving a certain kind of extroversion. Because they are also in a way focusing on the self more than a Western performer usually does.”

In this fascinating commentary, Callahan seems to be saying that he is trying to make the personal representative for the larger public. This is similar to what the feelings of the narrator in “Drover,” but instead of conflating the land with the self as in that song, in “One Fine Morning,” Callahan is laying bare his own artistic intent as a way to achieve a universal meaning, a commonality. 

While Callahan uses the idea of the apocalypse as a metaphor, there is still language and imagery within “One Fine Morning” that gestures towards the ending of the world as seen in the next verse:

When the earth turns cold
And the earth turns black
Will I feel you riding on my back?

Callahan goes on to sing the following as the percussion moves from only fills to a steady rhythm:

And for I am a part of the road
Yeah, I am a part of the road
The hardest part
The hardest part.

These words feel like a direct reference to The Road by Cormac McCarthy, a story set after an unnamed global catastrophe in which a father and his son maintain their existence through relentless traveling along a road, any road. Callahan’s lines demonstrate the father and son’s feeling of being a part of the road, fused with it in perpetuity as their only hope for survival, however bleak the circumstances. 

The song “One Fine Morning” is used in the soundtrack for the 2021 HBO miniseries Station Eleven. One of the narrative threads of the show focuses on a theater troupe that comes together in the years after a global pandemic. They travel the countryside in an established route through the countryside that is referred to as The Wheel. The leaders of the troupe maintain strict adherence to The Wheel as a kind of survival mechanism since it is determined that this course is well-established and relatively safe when compared to the unknown status of the rest of the terrain. Aligning with Callahan’s language in “One Fine Morning,” the troupe has become “part of the road” through its devotion to The Wheel. 

Station Eleven uses “One Fine Morning” as the soundtrack of a pivotal moment of revelation during episode eight of the series. The character Tyler reveals his true identity to the other main characters while also offering salvation and release to the Kirsten character. These scenes mirror Callahan’s own letting go within “One Fine Morning” as he discloses himself as the narrator of the song. Station Eleven centers the stories of multiple characters in the wake of society’s upheaval. In a sense, the viewer experiences each character’s apocalypse from their own point of view, making the cataclysm real on a personal level. Another way to put this is Callahan’s pronouncement in the song: “my apocalypse.” The use of “One Fine Morning” in the Station Eleven soundtrack is powerful and devastating while also connecting to the key themes of both song and series. 

Callahan finishes the song by singing:

My apocalypse
DC 450
DC 450.

These are the final words sung by Callahan for the song and on the album. “DC 450” refers to the actual catalog number of Apocalypse as issued by Drag City, Callahan’s record label. The catalog number is used for stock control and to track sales figures. By embedding this non-artistic identification code into the actual text of the album it refers to, Callahan destroys any sense of artistic artifice regarding himself as the perspective within the songs on the album. This refers back to the earlier line in the song, “the curtain rose and burned in the morning sun,” which signifies the act of removal of artistic detachment. Taken together, these lyrics allow Callahan to eliminate the separation of the audience from the art. Similarly, earlier on the album, Callahan sings the following in the song “Riding for the Feeling”:

With the TV on mute
I’m listening back to the tapes
On the hotel bed
My, my, my apocalypse
My, my, my apocalypse
I realized I had said very little about ways or wheels
Or riding for the feeling.

This commentary on listening to recordings of he and the band playing the songs that will appear on Apocalypse again reinforces the notion of the album as an object. This type of gesture by an artist is also found in the visual arts. The art term “painterly” is defined as “the application of paint in a ‘loose’ or less than controlled manner, resulting in the appearance of visible brushstrokes within the finished painting.” Taking that concept further was the art critic Clement Greenberg who advocated for “flatness” in 20th century abstract painting as explained further in this 2011 article by The Guardian:

“[Greenberg] argued that pure abstract painting was the logical and necessary conclusion of modern art. The whole tendency of serious modernism, he claimed, was to strip various art forms down and reduce them to a philosophical core of truth. In the case of painting, this meant escaping bourgeois fantasies of perspective and recognising that painting’s reality is that of a flat object; a surface. According to this theory, [Jackson] Pollock – whose paintings are planes of colour – stands as a metaphysical revealer of what painting truly is.”

The ultimate example of this artistic mode is the “readymade” as conceived by Marcel Duchamp in which he “selected mass-produced, commercially available, often utilitarian objects, designating them as art and giving them titles.” The most famous and, at the time, scandalous example is Fountain in which Duchamp purchased a urinal, signed it as an artwork by “R. Mutt” and submitted it as a finished work to the Society of Independent Artists. 

Short of coming to the listener’s house, hitting them over the head, and yelling, “You are listening to my music,” Callahan is creating the audio version of “painterly,” establishing a kind of flatness for his song. By singing about listening to the recordings for Apocalypse and citing the catalog number of the record itself, Apocalypse itself is now removed from the writing of the songs or the performance by Callahan and the musicians. It is now permanently embedded in vinyl, the plastic of the compact disc, and the data that makes up the mp3. 

A record or album by a musician is literally a record of a moment in time. Through the actions outlined above, Callahan has removed time within “One Fine Morning” and Apocalypse. “DC 450” was recorded by Callahan and the assembled musicians in September 2010, and yet it always remains in the present every time someone listens to the song. “One Fine Morning” happened and also keeps happening. It  endures in the past, present, and future all at once. The timelessness of the song may be what causes it to be a hiding song for Nick Cave. Perhaps it is the innate knowledge of the outside-of-time feeling of “One Fine Morning” is what allows Cave to seek refuge and “hide inside” of the song.

As a complete statement, Apocalypse — and especially “One Fine Morning” — marks the moment that Callahan’s work is truly elevated to a masterful level. He is able to integrate intellectual ambition with emotional frankness and folds language, time, and self into his music while concurrently and completely removing those elements. 

Photo by Scott Bunn.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: