There is a line running through Bill Callahan’s songwriting that is similar in approach as nature writing, one that was previously referenced in an earlier Recliner Notes post. Another good example of Callahan working in this mode is the song “Spring” from his 2013 album Dream River:
The song opens with a riff on electric guitar played by Callahan. It is reminiscent of the central chord progression in “Goin’ Back” by Neil Young, the opening track off of 1978’s Comes a Time:
The riffs in “Spring” and “Goin’ Back” are not exactly the same, but they share the same ascending musical pattern. There’s a pastoral time travel idealism in “Goin’ Back” that could also be characterized as nature writing. For “Spring,” Callahan has other goals as he creates a loose, jazzy feel which is highlighted by Callahan’s electric guitar and what sounds like wood blocks. Callahan sings the first verse:
The wind is pushing the clouds along
Out of sight
A power is putting them away
A power that moves things neurotically
Like a widow with a rosary.
Callahan personifies the atmospheric conditions that generate air movement, describing this “power” as not subject to scientific principles but rather acting “neurotically / Like a widow with a rosary.” This likening of nature’s erratic conduct with a symbol of death (i.e., the widow) hints at Callahan’s central conceit of the song which is further delineated in the second verse:
And everything is awing and tired of praise
And mountains don’t need my accolades
And spring looks bad lately anyway
Like death warmed over.
In this verse, the band is joined by a flue that further deepens the jazzy tone of the music. As to the lyrics, it’s unclear what verb Callahan is using in the first line. Is it “a-wing” as in birds flying through the sky? Alternatively, he could be creating a new verb out of the sound that people make when they are touched by something: “Awwww.” With either usage, the song’s narrator is over it all and “tired of praise.” He goes further by saying “Mountains don’t need my accolades,” as if saying that nature stands for itself. Besides, he says, “Spring looks bad lately anyway,” likening it to “death warmed over.” This further expands on the “widow with a rosary” image from the first verse. With these lines, Callahan is outright rejecting the entire field of nature writing, the kind that Callahn himself employed in the past. He seems to be saying, “Why should we praise something that doesn’t need it and is a celebration of death anyway!” Cover your ears, William Wordsworth! Though Wordsworth is one of the most famous nature poets in the English language canon, even Mr. Let Nature Be Your Teacher himself shared the perspective of the narrator in “Spring” at times, most famously in the poem “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.” Here are the first two stanzas:
There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;—
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day.
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.
The Rainbow comes and goes,
And lovely is the Rose,
The Moon doth with delight
Look round her when the heavens are bare,
Waters on a starry night
Are beautiful and fair;
The sunshine is a glorious birth;
But yet I know, where’er I go,
That there hath past away a glory from the earth.
Wordsworth aligns the ecstasy of youth with the young’s continual capacity for awe and rapture. As one grows older, Wordsworth says that there’s still the ability to recognize wonder in the world. He names examples, but shares them with a resigned sigh: “The Rainbow comes and goes / And lovely is the Rose.” With only a few words, Wordsworth is able to capture how our delight in nature lessens with age. On Callahan’s part, his lack of connection with nature is less mournful than Wordsworth’s and more fierce as the cause for this separation can be seen in the second verse of “Spring”:
And the bantam is preening madly
Waiting for the light of day
And all I want to do
Is to make love
The song’s narrator still feels passion, but nature itself has been cast aside and been replaced by animal attraction. Callahan likens the lust felt by the narrator to a “bantam” or rooster “preening madly” who is waiting for his opportunity to crow with the coming of light. The desire of the narrator is laid bare and, at this point, the music explodes in a stormy fury. Callahan repeatedly sings over the wail of the band that he wants to make love “with a careless mind.” At one point during this episode he sings, “Who cares what’s mine?” The feelings then are not so much a rejection of nature as an abandonment of everything in place of a single desire. Everything else besides lust is pointless.
After the musical squall subsides, Callahan begins the next verse:
We call it Spring though things are dying
Connected to the land like a severed hand.
The narrator resumes his observations on nature, marking that the transition out of winter is more violent than the regular Hallmark card characterization of spring as a rebirth. Instead of participating in that stereotype, the narrator says, “The true Spring is in you.” It’s a realization by the narrator, allowing himself to be honest about the paradox of spring. It is a time for death and yet also a time for violent attraction. The song ends with Callahan singing “All I want to do / Is to make love / To you / In the fertile dirt.” Here, Callahan equates nature with the intimate act of love. This comprehension by the narrator parallels a passage from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard’s 1974 nature writing tour de force:
“The earth was an egg, freshened and splitting: a new pulse struck, and I resounded. Pliny, who, you remember, came up with the Portuguese wind-foals, must have kept his daughters in on windy days, for he also believed that plants conceive in the spring of the western wind Flavonious. In February the plants go into rut, the wind impregnates them, and their buds swell and burst in their time, bringing forth flowers and leaves and fruit. I could smell the loamy force in the wind.”
Dillard’s “loamy force in the wind” recalls the opening lines of “Spring”:
The wind is pushing the clouds along
Out of sight
A power is putting them away.
Callahan knows of the true force guiding spring from the beginning of the song, but, as “Spring” progresses, he fuses nature, sex, and creativity into a singular power. This association is represented by the line from the song’s bridge: “mind wide words collide.” Spring is a violent collision of primal forces. For Callahan, the rebirth of spring is not about the budding trees and flowers that start to appear but rather the potent power of desire. This insight results in the creation of a new verb in the song — “kaleidoscoping” — representing this aggressive and, yes, beautiful, fusion of ideas into a single vision.
The musical accompaniment of the last verse sounds like a kaleidoscope, though the song ends on an unusual chord that rings out, lingers, and eventually fades. This ending leaves the listener with an odd feeling of wanting more since that particular chord doesn’t provide closure. Perhaps this ending was an intentional act by Callahan because he did in fact revisit the song the next year on 2014’s Have Fun With God which serves as an album-length alternative dub version of the Dream River album. Here’s the dub adaptation of “Spring,” now known as “Call It Dub”:
In a 2013 interview with The Quietus, Callahan shared his love for dub:
“Dub is a spiritual, abstract, visceral, mystical thing. Finite and infinite at the same time. Deeply rooted in the earth and in outer space. It was invented in Jamaica and no one else really messes with it as it is greatly abetted when the original song has a reggae rhythm, which my songs largely do not. My reason for doing it is simply for the fact that I love dub music (from 70s Jamaica only)! It’s a genre that has come and gone. I don’t think the digital age will usher in a new appreciation for it. It’s a pensive [music] and [it is] body music. Neither of which I think are characteristics of this digital age.”
Likewise, Callahan told The Other Journal in 2006 that he wished he could have collaborated with dubmaster Lee “Scratch” Perry. Furthermore, Callahan said the following to The Guardian in 2019:
“I read this quote where [Lee ‘Scratch Perry] said: ‘I wanna make superhero music. My music is for the good, it vanquishes evil.’ I was like: ‘Yeah, let’s make music that is full of goodness.’”
Callahan describes dub as “pensive” as well as “body” music. Both characteristics are reflected in “Call It Dub.” It highlights the sonic aspects of “Spring,” especially the flute and percussion, while also transforming the electric guitar into a magnificent spaghetti western sound. An echo is added to the instrumentation and also layered onto Callahan’s vocals, making “Call It Dub” sound as if it is being played inside a canyon, surrounding the listener like the mysterious wind power named by Callahan in “Spring.” In addition to incorporating these effects into the sound of the song, Callahan edits out a good portion of the words in “Spring,” allowing “Call It Dub” to be lyrically pared down. That may be why he titled this new version “Call It Dub” since the central theme of “Spring” is minimized in favor of a new, mysterious, and powerful soundscape. This re-shaping from “Spring” to “Call It Dub” is indeed “full of goodness” and true superhero music in the vein of Lee “Scratch” Perry.
Yet the recording of “Spring” stands alone. It illustrates Callahan’s rejection of the common and accepted idea of what spring is. Instead, he presents something new; an amalgamation of contrasting ideas and forces such as death, life, sex, violence, and pastoral quiet and moves the listener towards a new understanding of the season.
Image: Arkhip Kuindzhi, Early spring, 1895, painting, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.