The Tripwire: On Independence and Getting Lost In Bill Callahan’s “America!”


On July 4th morning, I woke up to a cup of coffee and a conversation with an old friend now living in a proud Midwestern city not far from where I grew up. She was having a tough time with the overwhelming displays of patriotism: "I don't really like America most days. Why change that today?"

Perhaps what she meant by, "I don't like America most days" was more along the lines of, "I don't support many of the values our nation represents to the world."

This is a sentiment probably shared by most of my friends from college—maybe a decent part of my generation—to at least some extent. Still, Tom Petty doesn't exactly write songs about this.

Petty and Springsteen, and whatever current pop chart hit happens to mention summer, sun or "Firework"s, have come to dominate the holiday and its celebrations. And with good reason. The holiday seems as much a celebration of backyard barbecues and mediocre beer as a moment to step back and analyze our nation's origins and the state of its democracy. A day to remember that hot dogs do taste better outside and Chicago's "Saturday In The Park" does still kind of rule.

But there are plenty of staunchly patriotic American ballads to go around. In "America!," Bill Callahan gives us a torn narrative to contemplate the other 364 days of the year. The track, a strong note that comes smack in the middle of Callahan's recent album Apocalypse, was just given a visual accompaniment by three members of Austin's Okay Mountain art collective.

The video, completely animated, is a delight to behold. You're basically taken for a ride through the landscapes of America along with an adventurous pair of cowboy hats. And if the image of fireworks reflecting through cartoon Bill Callahan's aviators in front of an American flag background isn't iconic, I sure don't know what is. But contrary to what that image may suggest, this video rarely feels ridden with irony.

The lack of any ironic feel may simply be a result of the song and Callahan himself. There's just very little room for it with everything else he packs into the five and a half minute song that feels at once sparse and overrun with conflicting emotions. "America!" gives us a narrator far away from his home country. He is nearly shouting aloud from his hotel room in Australia about his basic longing to be home. But this basic longing is just the beginning, because this is Bill Callahan we're talking about. It devolves into a near free association where the narrator admits to never serving his country and then casually mentions several of the least popular conflicts our nation has ever endured. This may feel a bit jumbled from the outside, but it's this mess of humanity Callahan has come to excel at expounding upon.

It's vague and contradictory and proud and ashamed and by the end you're all sorts of mixed up. Callahan gives you a large part of the bigger picture without really implying any resolution or simplicity to the story. This seems largely because his characters, be they articulate or vague or cryptic, at the end of the day seem just as lost for the bigger meaning as you or me. But they're looking for it, no less. That's something.

And if there are days you're not up for the bigger picture, you've got these nice pretty visuals to stare at while a man who has become one of America's finest storytellers shouts in the background.

The Tripwire: On Independence and Getting Lost In Bill Callahan’s “America!”