At the age of 33, Bill Callahan — still releasing music under the name Smog — recorded “Permanent Smile” as the last song on the 2000 album Dongs of Sevotion:

It’s a gorgeous song, propelled by loud, intermittent drums and a tinkling piano that is reminiscent of the irregular Philip Glass-y piano on “All My Friends” by LCD Soundsystem. “Permanent Smile” features a narrator’s plea to God, asking specific questions about the nature of life without ever coming out with the biggest inquiry of all. The last line of the song is “Oh God, I never, never asked why.” In between the opening questions and the final for-the-record statement, the narrator shares his obsession about the state of his own body, noting that the “Seven waves of insects make babies in, in my skin” and the “flesh, rotted off my skull.” With these occurrences, the narrator knows he has “earned” the “permanent smile” that comes with death. Though he’s careful to point out that he never came out and asked God why, Callahan’s narrator is concerned with his legacy and hints at doubts about the function of life. God does not respond to the questions — both asked and unasked — posed within “Permanent Smile.” Callahan remarked on the song in a 2001 interview to Lazy-i:

“The particulars of the seven stages of decomposition were taken from L’Enfer by Barbusse, and the first line (Oh God can you feel the sun on your back) came to me when I was recording in a dim studio, then walked outside into the sun. Aren’t all songs hymns to one spigot or another?”

Death continued to be a theme in Callahan’s work, but his perspective evolved as he aged Twenty years after the recording of “Permanent Smile,” Callahan addressed the death of his mother in a number of songs on 2019’s Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest, particularly the song “747”:

The song opens with some studio chatter including a voice — probably Callahan’s — asking, “Is it going?” which is similar to the famous “Is it rolling, Bob?” opening of “To Be Alone with You” by Bob Dylan. It is indeed rolling for Callahan as he plays a beautiful, undulating intro on his acoustic guitar. He is quickly joined by percussion, a throbbing bass, and another acoustic guitar playing a counter-melody. Callahan begins to sing:

I woke up on a 747
Flying through some stock footage of heaven.

These opening lines are both gorgeous and hilarious since we all know the heaven stockage footage reference. The lines also recall Callahan’s song “Small Plane” found on his 2013 album Dream River which uses the story of a couple piloting a plane as a metaphorical framework for describing the feeling of being in a new relationship. “747” shares the same joyous feeling as “Small Plane,” but it’s a portrayal of a different kind of beginning as can be seen in the rest of the first verse:

This is the light right here
Before clouds bittersweet and with suggestion
This is the light
Bald and bold as a baby crawling toward adulteration.

Parents of young children know the emotion depicted by Callahan. It’s a purity of feeling as Callahan employs the image of heavenly light as a stand-in for the delight of interacting with one’s own child. The song shifts to a bridge as the chord progression includes a minor chord that adds a bit of melancholy to the song with Callahan singing the following:

There was blood when you were born
And the blood was white from your eyes
This must be the light you saw
That just left you screaming
And this must be the light you saw
Before our eyes could disguise true meaning
And this must be the light you saw
Just as you were leaving.

Callahan continues to sing about a light, but in this context it’s considering the first light a baby sees when it is born. Callahan then connects and equates that first light of life with the last moment of life before death. This correlation by Callahan in “747” comes from direct experiences in Callahan’s own life in the time before the release of Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest as he explained in a 2019 interview with The Quietus:

“In the last five years I’ve been in the room while my wife pushed my son out of her, and I’ve been in the room and held my mother’s hand while she died, that’s the beginning and the end too. I guess I’ve been through the extremes in the last five years and I’ve noticed the similarities of those two. Being born and dying felt very similar in lots of ways.”

In the same interview, Callahan further describes the connection between these life experiences:

“When my son was being born, I wondered what it was like to be a birthing nurse or doctor when you punch the clock in the morning, then you start pulling babies out of people ‘til it’s five o’ clock, then you punch out. What is that like? I realized all the nurses had a certain blissful air about them, almost like they got high off the process. There seemed to be a golden glow in the room as the time drew nearer and nearer. I felt like I saw the gates of life that were gold, sunshine gold. I really felt our life force. Then with my mom, you know, she got a prognosis of a year and a half, and then it was about a year later that she died. It was a very slow process that I witnessed, but actually seeing death creep in over a period of months… It was awful, and also beautiful, in her last few days there was definitely a force in the room, the same gates of life. It felt very similar to the birth. She seemed like she was going where she wanted to go.”

After Callahan sings the preceding bridge, he repeats the word “leaving” and the song moves back to the original, blissful two chords heard in the opening of the song. It’s a beautiful passage, reflecting the “golden glow” of our collective “life force.” In addition to the lyrical content, Callahan is able to musically connect the thoughts of a loved one passing away in the same way as with the “bald and bold” baby crawling towards its parents. Conveying this epiphany through both words and music is yet another demonstration of Callahan’s songwriting mastery. 

All of the pronouns that Callahan has used to this point in “747” have been “I” and “you.” Callahan then widens scope of the perspective for the remainder of the song as he returns to the minor chord motif:

We walked on the moon
Like flies on a mule
We walked on the moon
Flaws in a jewel
We are flies on a mule
And we’re good at what we do.

Even though he’s characterizing the achievement of landing on the moon as being insignificant, “like flies on a mule” or “flaws in a jewel,” Callahan tries to show balance in his assessment of humanity. He acknowledges that these acts are ultimately meaningless, nevertheless “we’re good at what we do.” As the music moves back to the lovely two-chord sequence, he details our true achievement: “We turn darkness into morning / We turn belief into evening.” It’s a curious line with a hint of irony since humanity doesn’t have the keys to operate light and dark in this way, but yet, as a metaphor, it works as a way of acknowledging our capacity for optimism in the face of our insignificance. Again, it comes back to the light that Callahan considered at the beginning of the song. In the same interview with The Quietus, he says, “Well those are probably the best bits of the Bible, the beginning and the end.” We’re able to capture the feelings of the creation of the known world and imagine how it will be destroyed. In this way, Callahan marvels at our ability to believe in ourselves despite the evidence of our immateriality in the context of the universe surrounding us. What powers us is the light that we see best at the beginning of our lives and at the end. 

The next song on Shepherd in a Sheepskin seemingly dedicated to the passing of Callahan’s mother is “Circles”:

It’s a lovely song that captures the spectrum of emotions attached with grief as seen in the opening lines:

I made a circle, I guess
When I folded her hands across her chest
She made a circle, I guess
And a circle does what a circle does best.

First, there’s the halting nature of using the words, “I guess,” as if Callahan is reluctant to share these observations from a powerful and personal moment, namely the last stages of his mother’s life. Regardless, it’s a beautiful and compelling reflection that connects the physical act of the circle of her folded hands with the circle of life that Callahan depicts in “747.” Indeed, coming back to the beginning is what “a circle does best.” He goes on to sing, “Death is beautiful” as Callahan considers his mother’s life in totality at its end. He finishes the song by singing:

With kisses sweet as hospital grapes
As she slips out the door
To flirt with the boys on the library floor.

These are heart-crushingly yet exquisite images to represent a loved one’s passing, especially the last line which seems specifically personal. 

The very next song after “Circles” on Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest is another short track called “When We Let Go”:

The song is centered on a jazzy, stop-and-start musical accompaniment that sees Callahan speculating on the moment that an individual stops fighting to stay alive and truly accepts the end. The main image that Callahan uses in “Circles” is a circle of folded hands on the chest. In “When We Let Go,” the significant physical act featured is that “Our arms are open / And our hearts are exposed.” It’s conjecture on Callahan’s part, so he can’t help but add a little humor into this delicate line of thought:

And you will jog lightly into the kingdom
The kingdom of strangers.

These lines are funny because of the specificity of word choice — “jog lightly” — but they also represent the perfect action for the song’s subject, imagining that the individual in the song’s situation will be excited yet also trepidatious. 

The final track in the song cycle on Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest devoted to the celebration of Callahan’s mother’s life and her passing is a cover of the traditional gospel folk song “Lonesome Valley”:

This traditional American gospel folk song has been recorded by The Carter Family, The Monroe Brothers, Woody Guthrie, and even The Million Dollar Quartet. A recording of the song by The Fairfield Four was used at the narrative climax of the Coen Brothers’ Odyssey-set-in-the-Depression comedy O Brother, Where Art Thou? from 2000:

Casting back 20 years before Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest to when Callahan recorded “Permanent Smile,” it’s apparent that the song is the work of a younger man worried about his own mortality. It’s a beautiful and powerful song, but the gaze of the song is inward. Listening to “Permanent Smile” in close proximity to the song cycle on Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest — especially “747” — makes the juxtaposition of perspective all the more apparent. The later songs demonstrate Callahan’s maturation as a person and as an artist. There’s a deeper empathy in the 2019 recordings that have a lighter touch and a wistful celebration of his mother’s life, while still reflecting deep grief. This song cycle is a literal recording of Callahan’s process of letting go.

Image: Lance Vanlewen, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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