With the release of the album YTI⅃AƎЯ in October 2022, Bill Callahan shared with Paste Magazine the sonic approach that he took for the recording:
“I started becoming more interested in rock music again, so I started thinking more in terms of a band type of record…It seemed like, after the pandemic, I needed all the help I could get to make a little noise.”
The noisy band sound is captured well in “Drainface,” a song that also includes a slight thematic change in Callahan’s songwriting:
“Drainface” begins with a simple acoustic guitar part played by Callahan before he is joined by the full band, which features distinctive piano by Sarah Ann Phillips as well as old Callahan running mates Matt Kinsey on electric guitar and drum wizard Jim White. The tempo of the song is moderate yet steady. There’s nothing particularly flashy about the band’s sound early in the song, but they demonstrate an easy confidence in their playing which allows for an emphasis on Callahan’s vocals and lyrics. Callahan sings the opening lines:
The man that made the god
The god that made birth painful
For our womanly sins.
Kinsey answers each of Callahan’s lines with guitar fills and flares while Callahan delivers the third line in an upper register perhaps as a way to assert the patriarchy’s creation of religions that justify control over women in society. How does Callahan describe this god figure? It has “eyes like retired hotel bedspreads.” Callahan is a master of descriptive similes such as this one and the music changes with loud banging chords by Kinsey to accentuate the line’s impact. The band stops momentarily as Callahan whispers the word “Done.” He plays a short passage on the acoustic guitar before the band returns to the main chord progression. Callahan condemns this god by singing, “His eyes are done / Done seeing, done comforting.”
While the band continues the song’s central musical theme with Kinsey using his electric guitar as if he is detecting possible threats through sonar, Callahan shifts his delivery for the next line, speaking instead of singing. Callahan has utilized this mode occasionally throughout his career to provide a variation. The line that he speaks sounds like, “The river more than ever.” Internet sources transcribe the line as “Deliver more than ever,” but that may be incorrect, especially because of the context of the rest of the song. Additionally, rivers are a potent symbol for Callahan as he returns to it often to represent power and also reassurance. The river motif in Callahan’s songwriting was previously explored on Recliner Notes in “Say Valley Maker,” “From the Rivers to the Ocean,” and “Cowboy.”
Callahan’s ongoing captivation with rivers could be the reason for his selection of the song “Easy Wind” to cover for the 2016 Day of the Dead tribute celebrating the music of the Grateful Dead:
The song was written by lyricist Robert Hunter as an uptempo blues platform for the Dead’s Ron “Pigpen” McKernan. For his rendition, Callahan transforms “Easy Wind” into, well, a typical Bill Callahan song, slowly, contemplatively, and deliberately moving through Hunter’s blues references before reaching the following lines:
And the river keeps a talkin’
But you never heard a word it said.
For Callahan, ignoring a river is the biggest mistake one can make, implying that the narrator of “Easy Wind” deserves his fate of hard work and no women. On the other hand, the narrator of “Drainface” knows how much he relies on the river, needing it now “more than ever” for support and strength. Why? To answer that question, Callahan sings the next lines while the band slams loud chords behind him:
You came on my heart
I tried to wash it away
Nearly washed my poor heart
Clear down the drain.
Someone is attacking the narrator, striking at him and targeting the most vulnerable part of himself. The attacker is unnamed, it could be the man-made god from the beginning of the song or someone else. The tone of this assault is aggressive and sinister as implied by the musical accompaniment. The narrator tries to use the river as a defense from this invasion of the heart, and, in doing so, the narrator says that he “Nearly washed my poor heart / Clear down the drain.” These words summon the old nursery rhyme or camp song, “Alice Where Are You Going?”:
Alice, where are you going?
Upstairs to take a bath
Alice, with legs like toothpicks
And a neck like a giraffe-raf-raf
Alice, stepped into the bathtub
Pulled out the plug
OH MY GOODNESS
OH MY SOUL
There goes Alice down the hole!
The song is intended to be humorous, but, like many nursery rhymes, have terrifying connotations. Perhaps Callahan, as the father of two young children, had been singing the song to his own children, and he began to think about his own heart, those closest to him, being washed down the drain like Alice.
After this verse, the band resumes the main musical figure again, but there’s a sinister aspect to the sound, a tension that’s quietly been building throughout the entire song. It’s matched by the unnerving image of a small, thin child washing down the drain of the tub. Callahan continues by singing:
Every time you open your mouth
Dead or dying seagulls fall out.
The song is now being directed at someone specific, not the man-made god or an imagined representative of the patriarchy. There’s one candidate that stands out when guessing who the song is addressed to, someone who “Every time you open your mouth / Dead or dying seagulls fall out.” A figure whose words and voice can provoke anger, disgust, and utter contempt — the 45th President of the United States of America. He certainly matches Callahan’s description of someone with “eyes like retired hotel bedspreads.” That speculation is especially strong when considering Callahan’s comments in the same Paste Magazine interview quoted above about the context of the writing of YTI⅃AƎЯ:
“I watched the world fall apart, as everybody did. I watched the country fall apart. I watched the world fall apart in slow motion. And I saw clearly that we had no leader, at least not one that was going to lead us out of this.”
The 45th President of the United States of America is the ultimate symbol of a drainface in that he is able to suck energy and goodwill out of any situation, leaving one feeling powerless and vulnerable to everything the world throws at you. The rage on Callahan’s part is evident as he repeats the words “Your drainface,” alternating between singing them with great emotion or growling the words in a low register. The band takes on this contempt as well with Phillips pounding out jarring and discordant sounds on the piano.
If the 45th President of the United States of America is indeed the titular drainface of the song, this would be an unusual turn in Callahan’s songwriting. As demonstrated through the entire Recliner Notes series on his songs, Callahan almost always approaches songwriting from a personal place, considering universal themes that impact everyone. In “Drover” and “Baby’s Breath,” he wrote about the history of white settlers displacing Native populations in the American West, but he was commenting on history and did so through a metaphorical storytelling perspective. On the same album as “Drover” and “Baby’s Breath,” Callahan recorded the song “America!” which comments on his home country, but it’s mostly from a place of humor, naming great American songwriters and performers and stating the ranks they achieved during their time serving in the military. “Drainface” feels like a different course for Callahan. The words of the song and Callahan’s delivery of those words reflect the raw and vulnerable emotions for most Americans during the time of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The doom-laden mood of “Drainface” is also displayed in the music at the end of the song. After Callahan sings “Your drainface” for the last time, the guitars and bass begin playing single whole notes accompanied by a tap on the drum for each note. The piano continues its noir-ish sounds before adopting a descending pattern as if something is pouring down the drain. The music sounds like a countdown. A countdown for what? Callahan whispers the words: “And I wait for thе scream.” The band and Callahan create a disquieting atmosphere, building the sense of anxiety as the listener, the band, and the world’s population anticipates the inevitable scream that will break everything apart. The scream doesn’t come in “Drainface.” It ends abruptly with no conclusion. The lack of release is unsettlingly in and of itself. Callahan does not provide any answers within “Drainface,” but instead creates a work of art that reflects the dread and anxiety felt by so many people during the years 2020 through 2022.
While the song itself offers little relief, Callahan shared in the same Paste Magazine interview how he was able to find strength during our collective time of fear and uncertainty:
“I just felt like I wanted a guide — somebody smart to tell me what the fuck is going on, what is real, what is propaganda, what’s really going on here, somebody. So I looked to various philosophers and comedians, but no one really worked. Some people would say some things that made sense to me or rang true, but then they would say something else that negated that. And I eventually decided the important thing was focusing on myself and my family and my neighbors and the neighborhood, and that was the best path for me to carry on. What I learned by going through that was I wanted to turn that into songs, in case anybody needed some guidance or corroboration for their thoughts. Just someone saying the same thing that they may be thinking.”
Callahan relied on his community for support, and, in turn, sought to share through his own art a release of emotions that might provide refuge or even direction for others. It’s comforting and invigorating to see Callahan take on the responsibility of being a leader during uncertain times in the best way he knows how: writing songs and then collaborating with musicians to “make a little noise.”
Image: Dion Art, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
One thought on “Drainface”