In October 2022, Bill Callahan released YTI⅃AƎЯ, his third album of original compositions in three years, extending his run of putting out excellent new music after a substantial six-year gap between albums from 2013 to 2019. One of the many stand-out tracks on YTI⅃AƎЯ is “Coyotes”:
The song begins with Callahan’s acoustic guitar establishing a solid groove, supported by master drummer Jim White and Emmett Kelly on bass. As the song progresses, Sarah Ann Phillips plays a run on the piano and it serves as a fanfare announcing Callahan’s vocal entrance to the song. He sings, “Yes I am your loverman.” As soon as he finishes the phrase, Matt Kinsey’s electric guitar answers with the same musical figure as the piano’s flourish. Callahan repeats the line as the electric guitar and piano weave in and out with each other, offering variations on the original motif. There’s a pause in this musical exchange and Callahan sings the first verse:
The coyotes are getting bolder
They come to watch the dog sleep
She sleeps later and later
As she gets older and older.
There’s something vaguely threatening in this opening verse that Callahan reflected upon with the album’s release:
“Coyotes — We lived for a while in a house in the hills. Coyote hills. The coyotes would start their song at dawn. Dawn and dusk were their main appearance times. Our dog would sleep outside sometimes in the morning and our boy was still bite-size. The coyotes would come take notes, edging closer each day. Mornings on the kingsize outdoor daybed. Like a righteous floating tide the coyotes would drift into our world. Predator and prey, blurred. Past and present, blurred. The young, the aged are to be snatched and devoured. Past lives edge in closer to try to speak to us. Current lives eye the past ones like sleeping dogs. And love spans all, that is why the feeling is so deep — deeper than one lifetime.”
It’s a beautiful contemplation by Callahan, especially his image of the “righteous floating tide” of the coyotes as they move in and out of a backyard to determine how close they can come to the house, the sleeping dog, and, as Callahan’s notes, his son. He keeps singing:
In her dreams she is coyote
Which of course is what she used to be
A dream of a coyote
Watching over you and me.
There aren’t nearly enough songs that imagine the perspective of an older, sleeping dog, but Callahan is a unique songwriter. As he says in the quote above, the song hints at the blurred division between a coyote and a domesticated dog. Not only does it imply that the dog could be carried off as a victim but it also notes that the dog has aligned herself with humans against its atavistic ancestor, the coyote. The dog is dreaming that she is “watching over you and me,” but the old dog is not able to provide the necessary protection as Callahan sings:
I tried to signal you a danger
But my voice had not yet come through
You were bent over, a peanut of a child
A new flower on the pea vine.
That must be a terrifying vision for a parent of a young child to behold, a toddler in the backyard as a “righteous” mob of predator coyotes quietly approaches, testing the limits to how close they can come. After this verse, the backing musicians stop, allowing Callahan to play a quick solo on the guitar before resuming the song. Callahan is less interested in the threat of the coyotes and instead sings a bridge that returns the focus of the song back to the old sleeping dog:
They say never wake a dreamer
Maybe that’s how we die
I realize now that dreams are real.
It’s a curious form of logic on Callahan’s part to conclude that dreams must be real because waking a dreamer could result in death, but it’s consistent with what Callahan said about dreams in a 2022 interview with Uproxx:
“We don’t pay enough attention to our dreams. Most people treat them as a novelty. Like, ‘Oh, listen to this silly, crazy thing that I dreamed last night,’ But a dream is a hand of tarot cards — you can read it or try to read it. I wonder what would happen if we focused more on dreams. I’ve always said politicians shouldn’t give those stupid bullshit speeches full of platitudes and lies, they should just talk about what they dreamed about last night and then we could decide if we think they’re the person for the job.”
Callahan is right that often dreams are set aside as an odd three-ring circus that happens in our heads during the night and then immediately forgotten. The act of dreaming is one of many subjects taken up by W.G. Sebald in his 1995 book Rings of Saturn. After writing a detailed account of one his dreams, Sebald writes:
“I suppose it is submerged memories that give to dreams their curious air of hyper-reality. But perhaps there is something else as well, something nebulous, gauze-like, through which everything one sees in a dream seems, paradoxically, much clearer. A pond becomes a lake, a breeze becomes a story, a handful of dust is a desert, a grain of sulphur in the blood is a volcanic inferno. What manner of theatre is it, in which we are at once playwright, actor, stage manager, scene painter and audience?”
Sebald’s metaphor of a dream as a theatrical production created solely by a single individual is a lovely framework to understand the power of dreams to that person. It’s also why dreams often don’t translate when trying to explain them to someone else. It isn’t their play or production. No one else saw it with you.
The 2001 film Waking Life conceived by Richard Linklater is a feature-length contemplation on the power dreams and the nature of reality. The images of the movie are the result of a process called rotoscoping in which a team of animators creates animation over the digitally-filmed action. This animation shifts between the different styles of the contributing animators, sometimes in mid-scene. The woozy, flowing point of view of the animation adds to the hallucinatory feel of Waking Life, adding to the narrative content featured in the various vignettes and monologues thematically tied to the nature of dreaming and reality. One scene in particular folds into this exploration:
Twenty-three seconds into the clip, a man talks to Waking Life’s main character about memories influencing dreams, similar to Sebald’s line of thought, but he goes further by saying:
“You have these serotonic neurons that inhibit hallucinations that they themselves are inhibited during REM sleep. See, this allows dreams to appear real while preventing competition from other perceptual processes. This is why dreams are mistaken for reality. To the functional system of neural activity that creates our world, there is no difference between dreaming a perception and an action and, actually, the waking perception and action.”
This lack of distinction in perception between waking and dreaming is reflected in another Callahan song from YTI⅃AƎЯ, “First Bird,” which opens with the following lines:
And we’re coming out of dreams
As we’re coming back to dreams.
This is Callahan’s beautiful way of underlining the feeling of waking in the morning and the fluid nature of dreaming life and waking life. Dreams inform reality and vice versa as Sebald points out in the quote above, and, as the man says in Waking Life, there is no perceptual difference between dreaming and being awake. Dreams serving as an inverse reality may be why Callahan named the album that both “Coyotes” and “First Bird” appear on YTI⅃AƎЯ, or “reality” spelled backwards.
Another song from earlier in Callahan’s career in which he centers dreaming is “Eid Ma Clack Shaw.” As previously explored on Recliner Notes, “Eid Ma Clack Shaw” creates a creepy atmosphere as the song’s narrator either imagines a visitation from a past lover or that he is so haunted by her that she might as well be in the room with him. The narrator goes to sleep and dreams of the perfect song, writing it down, secure in the belief that it holds “all of the answers.” As is usually the case when a dreamer tries to capture a dream in words, it comes out as gibberish:
Eid ma clack shaw
Zupoven del ba
Mertepy ven seinur
It’s a funny bit of writing and performance on Callahan’s part since he sings those words with great gusto. It also could be a gentle jab at those who say there is no difference between perception in the dreaming and waking life since the logic in the dream world and any epiphanies realized while dreaming usually don’t translate as anything but nonsense in our day-to-day world. Regardless, Callahan pushes us to dream and ponder the relevance of dreams. He would probably agree with the following line by the poet Federico García Lorca in his poem “City That Does Not Sleep” that is quoted by a character in Waking Life: “The living iguanas will come and bite the men who do not dream.”
Back to “Coyotes,” it is amusing and charming that Callahan invites this kind of speculation about dreams and perception from his own contemplation of an old sleeping dog. Callahan goes on to sing:
I wanted to tell you, we tend to stick together
Down through the generations
Up through the archives
Holding hands through many lives
Or coyote bands.
While Callahan sings these lines, the band gathers tension, building and building to an apex before releasing after Callahan sings “coyote bands.” Here, Callahan equates coyotes traveling as a group with humanity’s desire for life-long, committed relationships. It’s a curious comparison, but not the first song by a Drag City Records artist to use the coyote as a symbol in a love song. Silver Jews do so in the song “We Could Be Looking for the Same Thing” from their 2008 album Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea:
David Berman sings the following lines, presumably written for his wife Cassie Berman who accompanies him in the song:
I hope I don’t come across as a coyote in your eyes
But I been around some and I’ve seen
Enough to know we could both spend happy lives
Inside the days of you and me
We could be looking for the same thing
If you’re looking for someone
We could belong to each other
If you’re not seeing anyone.
Berman uses the coyote as a predatory symbol with a wish to not be viewed in that way. He hopes that he and his loved one “could belong to each other” and “both spend happy lives” together. This connects with Callahan’s own desires within “Coyotes” of “holding hands through many lives” as if the two loved ones belong to a pack of coyotes. Callahan confirmed that another song on YTI⅃AƎЯ was dedicated to Berman — “Last One at the Party” — so it’s possible that “Coyotes” is an allusion to a song by his late, departed friend.
After the musical build-up, Callahan and the band return to the central riff from the beginning of the song as the guitar and bass answer each other. At the end of “Coyotes,” he sings the same line that opened the song: “Yes I am your loverman.” Callahan told the listener from the beginning that this is a love song. Despite a number of diversions along the way, he’s back to promising his ever-abiding love and commitment “down through the generations [and] up through the archives.” “Coyotes” is a weird yet enchanting love song that encompasses coyote metaphors, the act of dreaming, and the nature of perception, ultimately arriving at a message of promise, responsibility, and love through the ages.
Image: Still from Waking Life, 2001, Fox Searchlight Pictures.