Sylvain Chauveau & Stephan Mathieu


Although he insists that his lyrics articulate the points of view of characters rather than those of his own, Bill Callahan’s work always seems designed to present gritty universal truths about relationships that penetrate the romantic veneer. Indeed, their supposed demystifications of love acquire, amongst Callahan’s fanbase, the status of cultish wisdom: here are songs which – allegedly – hack their way through the jungles of greeting-card sentiment to get to the sweaty, stained, conflicted, envy-ridden core of desire.

For those less willing to cede a pedestal to Callahan’s worldview, his work as Smog is often read not as a rising-to-consciousness of certain hard-to-stomach facts about sexuality but as just one more layer of (admittedly scuffed) romance. As with vaguely-comparable gutter prophets Charles Bukowski and Bill Hicks, he has a propensity to mistake airing his own psychological linen for pulling away the blinkers of his audience. In short, his material is possessed by a surfeit of partiality.

Palimpsest, by French vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Sylvain Chauveau and German sound artist Stephan Mathieu, sets some of Callahan’s more notable lyrics to an instrumental backing of heavily processed zither, Farfisa organ and brass. Even allowing for their author’s claim that Smog’s words are essentially fictional, it immediately strikes the listener as odd that the texts Chauveau has selected for reinterpretation here are associated so heavily with such a forceful subjectivity. Detaching them from the grain of Callahan’s baritone – albeit only to give them to Chauveau, who intones in a similar register – deprives them instantaneously of some of the extralinguistic significance they establish in their original contexts: there’s a perceptible wrongness to the act of appropriation undertaken here.

Wrongness, though, doesn’t necessarily equate with failure. In fact, one of the most impressive effects of Palimpsest is the way that, despite the superficial crossover between Callahan’s voice and his own, Chauveau’s singing is characterised by a hint of melodrama which contrasts deeply with the stylised world-weariness we recall from Smog records. At once, Callahan’s ersatz saloon-bar Bukowskisms are forced into the Brecht-Brel-Bowie current of modernistic Euro-melancholy; more specifically, Mathieu’s sound-worlds (particularly on an astounding, windblown ‘Wild Love’) make Palimpsest a cousin of David Sylvian’s 1987 album Secrets of the Beehive. Generally, the collaborators effect a modal change from Smog’s creepiness to a more profound eeriness, evacuating the lyrics of their conjugal realism and transforming them into figures of alienation and detachment.

The reworking of ‘Prince In The Studio’ pulls this off best, imbuing Callahan’s faintly absurdist fly-on-the-wall routine into an investigation of a dread which veers close to Lovecraftian cosmic angst. Less successful as a recasting is the concluding ‘I Break Horses’, which sticks too closely to the minor-key prettiness of the original, apparently oblivious to the fact that such melodic attractiveness arguably served to unjustly redeem the misogyny of the character Callahan created in the lyric. This apart, Palimpsest is an engaging exercise not only in détournement but in composition: looking beyond Chauveau’s vocal contributions, Mathieu’s long electro-acoustic durations eschew low-register drones, consisting instead of a music of airy, almost dematerialised tones which imply wintriness and fragility. These soundscapes alone would make this a good record; throw in the uncanny resurrections of Smog and we’re left with something genuinely absorbing.

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