Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been perusing old Hot Press magazines. I wrote regularly in Hot Press from 1993 to 1997 and I wrote a good few things from about 2002 to 2005, and then I stopped, except when I pleaded in 2019 that they might let me interview Julia Jacklin who was my heroine (they did). Most pieces are from the 90s and after all this time it seemed worth saving whatever pieces I can find by late teen and twentysomething me and Pritt-sticking them into an A3-sized sketch book. That way I can look at them the odd time, Sharon can too, and the kids can read them so that now and then they can find an album review I wrote when I was their age: Oh my God Dad didn’t have a clue even then did he.
Something I like about having written for Hot Press so long ago, in such early days, is that I get to read in quite a lot of detail what I thought and how I felt about songs when I was quite different than I am now. I get to read my young self amateurishly but ardently navigating what felt like complicated works. At times I changed largely for the better because of attention I had to pay to albums Hot Press gave me, on condition that I dived into them. Not a problem! I’m thinking of The Breeders’ Last Splash, The Afghan Whigs’ Gentlemen, Kristin Hersh’s Hips and Makers, Neil Hannon’s Promenade, GBV’s Alien Lanes, Tindersticks’ Tindersticks and Palace Music’s Viva Last Blues. Right now I’m particularly recalling and revering Smog’s 1997 Red Apple Falls.
That Smog album was the last one I reviewed before having to take a break from Hot Press because I had to start being a doctor in July 1997. It was a good place to stop. Red Apple Falls was and still is such a fine expression of how life can fill with colour as you grow up and that things that have felt tough can become easier, gentler, less lonely. I’m not saying this is universal — D:Ream’s ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ was a popular but dubious notion — but it’s possible even when teenage you thinks it’s not. (Smog’s ‘Teenage Spaceship’ from 1999’s Knock Knock, deserves its own post: “Flying around / The houses at night / Flying alone / A teenage spaceship / I was a teenage spaceship / Landing at night / I was beautiful with all my lights”.)
Smog’s Wild Love drew me into Bill Callahan’s writing in 1995 and its musical and lyrical sparseness were appealing, particularly the song ‘It’s Rough’: “Oh, it’s rough / Baby, to live / Oh, it’s hard / Baby, to survive / Everyday lately / My mind feels like glass / Ready to be smashed / Ready to be smashed”.
I remember liking songs off Wild Love because they were not what I considered overconfident songs, like most were, that expected us to aim for thrilling loving relationships and to be unsatisfied until we found one. ‘It’s Rough’ just asked you to be aware that you weren’t going to have the love you needed in your life and the song seemed to wonder if there was much point in carrying on: “Oh, it’s hard / Baby, to survive”. This seemed sensible and better than wanting the thing you couldn’t have. Of course you never stopped wanting it.
Wild Love was bleak and was followed by the arguably darker The Doctor Came At Dawn. When I met Callahan just before the daunting 1996 Doctor album came out he told me, “There’s a lot of death on the new one. I was just thinking a lot about death lately… just passing visions of coffins, vultures, things like that. That’s all”.
1997’s Red Apple Falls was distinctly and rapidly different. Much of the immediate evidence of the emotional shift was the music not the words, like the soothing French horn that intros the opening song, ‘The Morning Paper’. It was the stirring pedal steel that enhances the comical ‘I Was A Stranger’ and the trumpet that colours ‘Ex-Con’, along with “Whenever I get dressed up / I feel like an ex-con trying to make good”.
Some of the clearest change was lyrical in that relating to Callahan’s Red Apple Falls lyrics meant looking outward more than inward, cautiously but genuinely welcoming potential relationships rather than confining yourself, as Wild Love had, to inevitable aloneness. In the case of maybe the album’s standout song, ‘To Be Of Use’, Callahan works to figure out how we might make things better for those around us, even should life remain rough: “Most of my fantasies are of / Making someone else come / Most of my fantasies are of / To be of use / To be of use / To be of some hard / Simple / Undeniable use / Oh, like a spindle / Or oh, like a candle / Or oh, like a horseshoe / Or oh, like a corkscrew / To be of use / To be of use”.
I guess why these records continued to mean so much is that when you knew Wild Love and The Doctor Came at Dawn, then you heard Red Apple Falls, you could feel the heavy hopelessness lifting. You have to be aware of the early work to know that those awful bleak frozen feelings, should they be familiar, aren’t going to stick around. You have a songwriter sharing his emotional evolution experience and letting you know that viewing the future as being empty is an illusion. ‘To Be Of Use’ gets easily added to a playlist of songs that give me goosebumps mostly because of the hope that Smog song brings in contrast to the song from the year before. But ‘It’s Rough’ has to get on the playlist too because those songs are effectively partners; yin and yang.
‘To Be Of Use’, especially where it exists among the songs that surround it, is a permanently perfect moment. This four-syllable phrase, so simple, so short, so tattooable, has stayed with me and not only when using a corkscrew, though I’ve hummed it nearly every time I’ve opened wine. Mostly over the last quarter century when I’ve been trying to establish if what I’m doing at home or at work should help or might not. I don’t think you ever quite know if what you’re doing will improve things for those around you. You’re not in control.
But having a Smog-inspired to be of use as your goal means you have constant signposting in a direction that is, on average, over a lifetime, going to be better than its opposite. It makes decent life easier and should mean you do less harm than good. And it makes you appreciate the music you’ve lived with. When you are young and an artist you love has suffered and struggled in a way that is relatable and is now telling you that things have changed and can change for you, you can believe him. He has been there and he is coming out safely the other side and you can follow him. Talk about to be of use: songwriters can do no more than this. No-one can.