In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week: Songs that feature twisted takes on the family unit for Unconventional Families Week.
Smog, “Cold Blooded Old Times” (1999)
Like many people, I was introduced to Smog by High Fidelity. That’s where I discovered “Cold Blooded Old Times,” and quickly, I started diving deeper into Bill Callahan’s catalog, falling deeply in love with songs like “Dress Sexy At My Funeral” and “All Your Women Things,” both of which are still absolute soul-crushers. “Cold Blooded Old Times” is a great entrance point to Callahan’s catalog, though; while it’s slightly more upbeat than most other Smog songs, it’s not too much different from his other songs.
A cut off Knock Knock, “Cold Blooded Old Times” has a good rocking chair beat, some sonic slaps, and—if you actually listen—absolutely chilling lyrics. Callahan uses the romp of a song to expound on “the type of memories that turn your bones to glass.” Describing a domestic abuse situation or at the very least an incredibly contentious divorce, Callahan sings about how “mother came rushing in / she said we didn’t see a thing” and “father left at 8 / nearly splintering the gate,” all while you, the “little squirrel… understood every word.” That little squirrel line breaks me up every time, as I imagine a wisp of a kid who’s as fragile as a little tree-dwelling rodent having his whole life rocked with just one nasty adult conversation. It’s almost too much, even if it is just a song. To make matters worse, Callahan further drives things home by saying the incident gives the kid “a cold-blooded clarity,” leading him to wonder “how can I stand / and laugh with the man / who redefined your body?,” a sentiment that cuts straight to the bone. That poor kid. One minute he’s a kid with two parents, and the next he’s got a shitty dad who he’ll never be able to look at the same way again, and a mom who’s damaged goods forever.
In a way, “Cold Blooded Old Times” is almost too sad to listen to, a weird trait for a song that made a major motion picture soundtrack. On the other hand, it’s one of those tracks that demands to be listened to because it’s so sad. It’s important. With one sweep of his pen and a session or two in the studio, Bill Callahan made a track that both intimately captures life behind closed doors and conveys a message that’s pretty much soul-crushing.