As every day brings along more news on the secret activities of the United States (US) National Security Agency (NSA), our MUSIC & SURVEILLANCE series examines the work of one of its most precious and intriguing fruits: Bill Callahan, alias Smog.
Bill Callahan‘s parents used to work as language analysts for the NSA. He grew up at Silver Spring, Maryland, and soon started to compose and experiment with lo-fi home recording techniques. His early compositions, published under the nickname Smog, are strange songs about confusion and loneliness mixed with sometimes painful sounds. He later touched upon many different styles and moods, playing with blues, folk, country, and even dub. As he wrote himself, he “used to be darker”, then “got lighter“, and then “got darker again”.
Surveillance is never too far from Callahan’s music. Being watched and feeling guilty are two of the most prominent subjects in his discography. The first one is crucial for instance in “Goldfish Bowl“, from the 1995 LP “Wild Love” (“You’re watching me like a hawk“, he sings), or in the unambiguously titled “Live As If Someone Is Always Watching You“, of 2001’s “Rain On Lens“. Guilt is often addressed through the recurrent image of water, related to purification. Both subjects sometimes converge, such as in “River Guard”, from the 1999 album “Knock Knock“, about a guard who supervises prisoners when they go swimming, and who asserts that “we are constantly on trial / It’s a way to be free“.
But Callahan’s greatest ode to privacy invasions is undoubtedly “You Moved In”, from 1996’s “The Doctor Came At Dawn“. Here, the singer addresses somebody who “moved in” to his hotel, to announce her that he tapped her phones, and read her mail. The song’s final verses are: “And I hope you don’t mind / If I grab your private life / slap it on the table / and split it / with a knife“.
Finally, it is worth noting that the artist appears in a TV, very much like an Orwellian telescreened Big Brother, in the official video for “I Feel Like The Mother Of The World”, taken from “A River Ain’t Too Much To Love“, of 2005. Text by Gloria González Fuster