“I do think that songs are little utopias for people to live in for three or four minutes.”
Bill Callahan shared this sentiment during a 2022 interview with Uproxx to promote the release of his album YTI⅃AƎЯ, and it provides a good introduction to “Planets,” the second-to-last song on YTI⅃AƎЯ:
Callahan begins the song by singing the following couplet:
Well, I spent so long lying on this rock
Staring at the sky so long I forgot how to talk.
As he sings, Callahan accompanies himself on acoustic guitar. At first, it seems as if he’s all alone, but drummer Jim White is in fact playing along, providing what sounds like the far-off boom of thunder. It’s the perfect accent for the image of the narrator made nearly speechless while contemplating the aspect before him. Callahan and White stop singing and playing to allow for a brief pause. Then, Callahan adds an interlude, singing, “As night sailed in like a dock” assisted by a small figure on the acoustic guitar. Another pause and then Callahan resumes the main chord progression. This opening to “Planets” is beautiful, quietly demanding space to contemplate the galaxy. Many don’t have the ability to set aside the time for this type of mediation, but they might allow themselves to listen to a Bill Callahan song. “Planets” becomes an invitation to enter a vision for utopia as Callahan promises in the quote at the beginning of this post. Callahan continues:
I heard the planets singing
Singing as they spun.
Callahan half speaks the first line and, as he finishes it, the bass and electric guitar quietly enter the song along with a tap of the snare drum by White. What does the song the planets sing sound like? Callahan answers the question with the next line: “Vaguely Hawaiian.” As Matt Kinsey lights off flares in the distance on his electric guitar, Callahan proceeds to sing the following Hawaiian phrase four times: “Keewah keewah mow lu.” This is an approximation of the words. Not finding a translation for this line, I asked Callahan what the words meant during a Q&A session he held during a book signing in Asheville, NC in February 2023. He replied that when he was began the press cycle for YTI⅃AƎЯ, he expected during interview to be asked for a translation, but it never came up. He then shrugged his shoulders and said that the words mean, “Magnetic transcendence.”
There’s a mild irony to this section of “Planets” as the music that Callahan and the band are playing is gentle and lovely, yet it’s not what anyone would mistake for traditional Hawaiian music. This gesture on Callahan’s part sums up his singular musical identity well: beauty mixed with benign humor. Regardless, the Hawaiian words will have to do as the narrator accepts this quiet epiphany about the tone of the planets’ spin during his reverie.
Callahan continues the song with the line, “And the sun twirled and said, ‘Goodbye everyone.’” As he sings the word “twirled,” two different trumpet lines begin playing, both by Derek Phelps through overdubbing. The YTI⅃AƎЯ band shifts to a different expression during this line, especially because the trumpet parts. The music here begins to be reminiscent of the band Natural Information Society, a Chicago-based ensemble led by musician Joshua Abrams. Abrams and a rotating cast of musicians play a variety of different instruments, but usually feature distinctive horn parts. Natural Information Society works in many different modes, one of which is the sound of people journeying together as a group. This was analyzed in a Recliner Notes post dedicated to their song “Finite” from the 2019 release Mandatory Reality. Another song off of that album that represents group exploration is “In Memory’s Prism”:
The duo trumpet parts in “Planets” sound remarkably similar to the horns in “In Memory’s Prism.” It’s safe to assume that Callahan had Natural Information Society in the front of his mind during the creation of YTI⅃AƎЯ because one of the songs on Callahan’s album is called “Natural Information”:
During Callahan’s winter 2023 tour to support the release of YTI⅃AƎЯ, the stars aligned for Natural Information Society to join Callahan and his band for a performance of “Natural Information”:
The irony is that the song “Natural Information” does not sound like Natural Information Society, whereas “Planets” in fact does. The channeling of the sound of Natural Information Society into “Planets” fulfills one of Callahan’s goals for YTI⅃AƎЯ, to be more deliberate about the comprehensive band sound. As quoted in the Reliner Notes post on “Drainface,” another song on YTI⅃AƎЯ, Callahan hoped to “make a little noise” on the album. One aspect of this consideration is allowing the band to stretch out the performance length of Callahan’s songs. Eight out of the 12 tracks on YTI⅃AƎЯ surpass the five minute mark, a departure from most of Callahan recordings.
For the final verse of “Planets,” the dual trumpet parts fit in with the rest of the band as Callahan sings:
And the sun twirled and said, “Goodbye everyone”
And I felt so good just like sudsy chrome
Renewed, you know, for a second season
Let’s leave our things here and roam.
Callahan remains the master of the minute observation with his simile comparing a good feeling to “sudsy chrome,” a particular yet infrequent sensation. Furthermore, Callahan equates this emotion with being “Renewed, you know, for a second season.” This is another specific reference by Callahan invoking Americans’ obsession with the so-called “golden age of television” as so many adult conversations in the United States in 2023 are centered on which shows one is watching and if certain programs will be returning. Only Callahan would include a correlation between a person feeling at one with the universe and television. It’s both a very real reflection and also a slight dig at himself.
With the last line of the verse and the song — “Let’s leave our things here and roam” — Callahan draws out expressing the line, pausing between words and not singing the expected note for “roam” that would complete the established melody. Instead he sings a different note. In a way, this unexpected note opens a portal that starts the extended musical coda of “Planets.” The coda sounds closer to Natural Information Society than “Natural Information.” Compare it to the song “Oh No Fade” performed by Natural Information Society and Bitchin Bajas from their collaborative 2015 release Automaginary.
Back to “Planets,” Callahan and his band play in a darker mode than what came previously in the song. The trumpets blare but are enveloped by distorted sounds from Kinsey’s electric guitar. Sounds melt into one another before the bottom falls out, resembling a strange kind of intergalactic free jazz. Electric guitar ripples fluctuate across the soundscape. White provides weird percussion that seems to vibrate from far away. At one point, a child sings before being joined by another child’s voice. Are there two children, or is it the same child overdubbed twice like the trumpet? Their voices seem to be singing, “Keewah keewah mow lu.” Callahan and the band are summoning the sound of deep space but aren’t afraid of the mystery that they face. While it is not Hawaiian music, the band is able to capture the sound of planets singing, the musical equivalent of “magnetic transcendence.” Eventually, the song settles back into the main chord progression, but the musical context is different just as a group of people are altered after returning home from a long journey.
Callahan was asked in a 2022 Paste Magazine interview about the autobiographical nature of his songwriting and he replied:
“Everything is autobiographical, as long as you permit me to be living hundreds of autobiographies at once….We have amazing control over our mindset, as people, and, to realize that, it’s a good way to feel better or more connected with yourself in the world….I think songwriting is somewhat similar, in that, as you’re writing, you’re making a little world up for four or five minutes that is true and autobiographical….But, there’s also, like, 100 other things that could’ve been written that would also have been true and autobiographical. That might seem contradictory to each other, but I think they’re all true, because humans are complex….I’m never really satisfied until there’s a story there….That’s the only way that I know I’m okay with signing off on myself. I think other people can pull off suggesting a story, but I always feel like I’m not good at that. I need to have a whole story there.”
There is a narrative to “Planets.” A man lies on the ground, stares at the sky, night falls, and he is transported, either physically or mentally, away from that spot on Earth. He explores space, experiences the sound of planets singing, and returns as a changed man. Is it autobiographical? Callahan implies that it is, but it doesn’t really matter because the story is what is important. Most significantly, the exploration depicted in “Planets” is told through the music and does not rely on Callahan’s lyrics, a shift in musical expression for Callahan. “Planets” truly encapsulates Callahan’s belief that songs are little utopias. At the same time, there’s a paradoxical nature to “Planets” as the song is a self-contained unit and yet utterly expansive. It’s a song about a guy laying on the ground while, at the same time, representing the deepest and darkest mysteries of the universe: the sound of planets singing.
Image: Benjamin Inouye, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
2 thoughts on “Planets”
Thank you for this series – it coincided with a Callahan binge on my side, so perfect timing. I learned a lot, was thankful for small things like the links to the interviews, and English not being my first language I learned and understood hard to get stuff.
Especially with Reality (don’t want to try to spell it backwards), the songs gained so much live with his current band, and adding old Smog nuggets like Teenage Spaceship, Hit The Ground Running or Keep A Steady Friend Around (I believe never played live before) was a big surprise. It’s a bummer that opposed to earlier times no complete live recordings circulate, just Youtube snippets. And all the European dates were just to far away from my place.
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Thanks for reading! You’re right about the tour expanding the size and scale of Reality.