I looked all around, /
It was not written down, /
And so I tell you now…
In last week’s rambling justification of why I like vinyl records, I mentioned my preference for “real” books, to the surprise of precisely no one. Well, this week, I’ve been thinking about musicians who have written novels.
It’s an interesting transition to make, I think. Songwriting has more in common with poetry than prose, with a focus on rhythm and rhyme, cadence and meter, sibilance and assonance. Which isn’t to say that these qualities aren’t important in the writing of a novel, of course. But a song or a poem is like a sprint to a novel’s marathon. The terse format (unless it’s an epic poem like Don Juan or something) lends itself to deep analysis of a single subject or a fleeting moment. Novels have so much more ground to cover, as a rule. Sure, you could write a whole story about a single second, but would anybody actually want to read it?
Perhaps it’s unsurprising, then, that the two musicians turned novelists who spring to mind for me have always employed a particularly narrative approach in their songwriting: John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats and Bill Callahan of Smog.
Let’s start with Darnielle. He’s nothing if not prolific, with 17 full length releases, countless EPs, and two novels under his belt. The Mountain Goats’ songs often have a narrative tilt, sometimes playing out over the course of an album, like 2005’s The Sunset Tree or even in individuals songs, such as The Best Ever Death Metal Band In Denton. So it felt almost inevitable when he turned his pen to a novel.
His first, Wolf In White Van, is a mysterious thriller about a recluse who runs a mail-based adventure game. It’s a fascinating read about losing yourself in a fictional world, obsessive fandom, hidden satanic messages and trauma.
And trauma is at the thematic heart of his second novel, Universal Harvester, too. What starts out as a piece of 80’s tinged genre fiction suddenly shifts to something more grounded and profound. I don’t want to say much more for fear of spoilers, but, trust me, it’s really good.
The prose in both novels has a terse, adolescent quality that is recognisable from Darnielle’s music, but it is hard to imagine either of these narratives working as albums or songs. There is a depth of detail here which just seems better suited to the weightier format of the novel. Like the post-apocalyptic game world of Wolf In White Van‘s protagonist, the worlds here are described using words, not music.
Bill Callahan, too, has been a prolific songwriter for decades, delivering album after album, first as ‘Smog’, then later under his own name. Perhaps there’s a link here between being a prolific songwriter and the ability to turn a hand to novel writing? Maybe artists who are already in the pattern of writing and releasing a lot of material on a regular basis are more disposed to penning a novel or two, also? I mean, it’s pretty unlikely we’ll ever get a Thom Yorke or Joanna Newsom novel, right? Maybe it’s just a coincidence, I don’t know.
But while Callahan and Darnielle both boast a slew of albums of primarily acoustic guitar-led songs dating back to the 90’s, and have more recently dipped their toes into the world of narrative fiction, that is pretty much where the similarity ends.
Letters to Emma Bowlcut, Callahan’s only novel to date, was released in 2010, on the heels of his 2009 album Sometimes I Wish I Were an Eagle, and can be considered as something of a companion piece (see the eagle on the cover of the book, there?). At least, they’re from the same period in Callahan’s creative career, and both deal (obliquely) with the breakdown of a romantic relationship.
This kinship between book and record is clearer when viewed in the context of Callahan’s broader career. In dropping the moniker Smog and releasing music under his own name for 2007’s Woke On A Whaleheart, Callahan embraced a lighter sound than that of much of his Smog catalogue. While there were always glimmers of light amongst the oppressive clouds of smog, much of his music was brooding threat, minor-key menace and ambiguity; both semantic and moral. It’s hard not to speculate that this change in style was due to a change in biographical circumstances, as Callahan sings in Jim Cain (named after the author James M. Cain), reflecting on this period: “With the death of the shadow, / Came a lightness of verse.” If Woke On A Whaleheart is a record about a man saved from his own darkness by love, then Sometimes I Wish I Were An Eagle is the story of the slide back into the darkness when that love is snatched away. Jim Cain, again: “I used to be darker. / Then I got lighter, / Then I got dark again.”
And it is speculation: where Darnielle’s style is confessional with narrative elements out in the open, Callahan’s has always been oblique and evasive. All the clues you need to understand the story are there, if you look for them, but they’re in little asides, metaphors about birds and horses. Callahan even points to his own penchant for obscurity within the record itself:
“And I dreamed the perfect song. /
It held all the answers, /
Like hands laid on. /
I woke halfway and scribbled it down, /
And in the morning, what I wrote, I read. /
It was hard to read at first but here’s what it said: /
“Eid ma clack shaw zupoven del ba. /
Mertepy ven seinur cofally ragdah”
This is the second dream that Callahan relates to us in Eid Ma Clack Shaw. The first? “I dreamt it was a dream that you were gone.” He almost seems to relish the idea that the perfect way to depict the death of a relationship in song is a series of nonsense sounds. Even for writers, sometimes words aren’t enough. Or are too much.
And so to Letters to Emma Bowlcut. While John Darnielle’s novels are far from traditional or conventional, Letters is an altogether different beast. Described in its own blurb as an “epistolary novelette set sometime in the future,” its story is related through a series of 62 letters from the unnamed protagonist to the titular Emma Bowlcut. He recounts how they met at a party, his work as a surveyor of “the vortex”: a dark void he studies with a device called a micrometer. One of the most interesting idiosyncrasies of this format is that we witness precisely half of an exchange. There are passages where the protagonist and Emma argue over her off-and-on relationship with another man (mockingly dubbed ‘Baron Von Pirate Pants’), and we are compelled to imagine Emma’s response. One such letter opens:
“It may have read that way, but I wasn’t scoffing at anything.”
Without actually reading Emma’s responses, we understand, at least partially, her tone, her annoyances, tiny semblances of her character which differ from the idealistic portrait painted by the protagonist.
Most of the letters are less than a page in length. Sometimes, they read just like Smog songs.
And that’s what captivates me about this little novel: it’s like the key in the corner of the map with which you can start to unpick Callahan’s music. So many Smog and Bill Callahan songs deal with deeply personal responses to romantic relationships. Terse, figurative ramblings which feel as if they’re directly addressed to one person in particular, revealing scant details of the scene within which they take place. They’re all letters to Emma Bowlcut: one-sided responses to a situation that we can imagine but never actually witness.
Callahan’s work since this period has once again shifted in tone, somewhat. His latest record Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest is hardly straightforward and confessional, but it is less enigmatic than some of these earlier records. I hope that’s because he’s in a better place. No one should have to study the vortex forever.
A playlist inspired by this week’s record, in case your ears haven’t been treated enough yet today.