Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Let Us Remember: Smog's "Let Me See the Colts"

Smog's A River Ain't Too Much to Love is generally considered the beginning of Bill Callahan's kinder, gentler period, a period that, with the release of his new album, Sometimes I Wish I Were an Eagle, appears to have come to an end. But A River...is far from the sappy, nature-loving therapy session it's often made out to be. While songs like "I Feel like the Mother of the World" and "Rock Bottom Riser" are kind of hokey, most of the album has an awe-struck ambivalence to it, a recognition that nature is as much about death and decay as it is about peace and tranquility.

One of my favorite songs on the album is "Let Me See the Colts." As the album's closer, it sums up Callahan's guarded hopefulness in the image of watching colts being trained to race in the coming year. The song begins with Callahan bursting into his girlfriend's room and excitedly asking her to take him to see "the colts that will run next year." He tells her he wants to show the horses to "a gambling man....thinking about the future." This last image is enigmatic, since the reason Callahan wants to show the horses to the gambling man is never made clear. Are the horses supposed to make the gambler optimistic about future winnings? Or is he being shown the horses to make him stop thinking about the future (i.e. which horse he should bet on) and just appreciate the beauty of the running colts?

One of my favorite lines of the song is "The all-knowing, all seeing eye is dog tired/It just wants to see the colts." Firstly, the line's slightly ridiculous since the all-knowing, all-seeing eye would have already seen the colts run, but it's the idea that, having seen all there is to see (and presumably being both exhausted and in despair), the omniscient eye just wants that sliver of hope that comes with seeing horses run, even if it already knows all the future outcomes. You get the sense Callahan empathizes with this feeling, like he's experienced too much to be truly optimistic about anything, but he wants the brief breath of hope and inspiration that comes with seeing something that seems to epitomize all the wonderful possibilities of the coming future.

"Let Me See the Colts" would be a great ending credits song, because it imparts hope without explicitly saying things are going to be OK. Its uplift has a kind of OCD quality to it, like Callahan desperately needs to see the colts run to feel good about the future. Earlier in the song, when he wakes up his girlfriend, she asks him if he's been drinking. "No, neither drinking nor sleeping," he answers, and you can picture exactly what he looks and sounds like. It's this half crazed quality that's part of what makes the song that rare thing: a hopeful song for the hopeless.