by Raphael Helfand
2021 is the year of radical kindness. We’ve seen little indication of this in the political world (our new administration has shown incremental kindness, at best) or online, but kindness is making a comeback in the arts. About a month ago, I wrote about radical kindness in comedy for Part II of the Reflections series that reanimated Laid Off NYC from its comatose state. It’s high time for a music edition, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a more radically kind musical duo than Bill Callahan and Bonnie 'Prince' Billy.
Bill and Bonnie are two of a million sad, earnest white guys who picked up guitars in the ‘90s. But unlike the Pavement clones whose rawness always comes off a beat too ironic, self-aware to the point of horseshoe cringiness, B&B have always represented—to me, at least—a perfect balance of worldliness and wide-eyed sensitivity. Bonnie was raised in a thriving music and theater scene in Louisville and stays true to his Appalachian roots while incorporating post-punk elements into his sound and literary flourishes into his lyrics. Bill, on the other hand, was born to two National Security Agency language analysts in a D.C. suburb and spent half his childhood in the U.K. And yet, somehow, the wholesome cowboy wisdom he’s settled into feels no less authentic than Bonnie’s bearded, river creature charisma.
Callahan, who started his career as Smog and only began performing under his given name in the mid-aughts, has gotten nicer and nicer, erasing all traces of irony from his act, as if they were the pollution his previous alter-ego implied. (Some say his Smog output is better than anything he’s made post-name-change; for me, it’s hard to choose.) When his son was born in 2015, he officially became an elder statesman of unabashed kindness. He starts his latest album by stepping into the shoes of a wedding limo driver who loves his job, and the empathy with which he approaches his subject makes it feel more like lived experience than cosplay.
Bonnie has similarly shed the indicators of self-consciousness that were present in his early career. He, too, has discarded alter-egos—Palace Brothers, Palace Music, and his birth name, Will Oldham—settling on the one that most represents his picaresque persona. In 2017, he made an album with Bitchin’ Bajas on which he chanted fortune cookie sayings for eight minutes at a time. (I interviewed him while he was touring behind that album and can confirm that his intentions were pure.) And a year later, he and his wife had a child of their own.
This past fall, as Bill’s offspring, Bass, neared grade school age, and Bonnie’s entered the terrible twos, the aging, paternal duo began to release a string of covers. They put at least one out almost every week until this month, when they took a 17-day hiatus. I’ll admit, I was nervous. Have they quit music? I wondered. Are they OK? But the optimist in me hoped it might be a sign of something big.
My internal optimist was right. On the 19th, Bill and Bonnie released their most ambitious collaborative project yet—more daring than their tongue-in-cheek cover of Billie Eilish’s “Wish You Were Gay,” braver even than their acoustic take on “Deacon Blues,” Steely Dan’s deliciously over-produced yacht rock classic.
What you see here is a group of old friends and family coming together to memorialize one of their own. David Berman, whose radical kindness will live on long past his tragic 2019 suicide, was the epitome of earnest truth-telling. He may not have had the sonic influence on the world that his longtime bandmate Stephen Malkmus has, but his lyrics far outshone those of anyone in his sphere. A poet at heart, Berman was at turns sardonic and devastatingly honest, often within the space of a single verse.
He recorded frequently but toured irregularly with his group, The Silver Jews. In 2009, he quit music to do something that would more directly counteract the harm his father had done to the world as an alcohol, tobacco and firearms lobbyist. When he first attempted suicide in 2003, he demanded to be brought to the suite at the Loews Vanderbilt Hotel where Al Gore had stayed during the 2000 election recounts so he could “die where the presidency died.” He cared about the world to the point of self-harm.
Back in 1998, though, with a Democrat in the oval office and one of the greatest albums of all time in the works, Berman saw the world through somewhat rosier glasses. He ended American Water with a track called “The Wild Kindness,” a song about pushing ourselves, and society at large, to live up to our humane potential. He ends its first chorus, “I’m gonna shine out in the wild silence / And spurn the sin of giving in.” He ends its final chorus, “I’m gonna shine out in the wild kindness / And hold the world to its word.”
These are idealistic sentiments, but they bear repeating. That’s what Bill and Bonnie have done, with the help of their peers at Drag City, the label where they've remained for their entire careers, as did Berman. A choral rendition of “The Wild Kindness” would be doomed to fail if sung by any group other those who knew Berman best. Cassie Berman, David’s wife and a Silver Jew herself, takes centerstage with Bonnie and Bill, but they are backed by a veritable all-star cast—Meg Baird, Bill MacKay, Cory Hanson, David Pajo, David Grubbs, Matt Kinsey, Haley Fohr, Emmett Kelly, Todd Rittmann, Alasdiar Roberts, Matt Sweeney, George Xylouris, Azita Youssefi, Sean O’Hagan, Ben Chasny and Elisa Ambrogio. A quick scroll through Bill & Bonnie’s collaborative discography will reveal they have worked with all these artists in the span of four months, and a deep dive into each of their discographies yields even greater gold. It’s a testament to B&B’s collaborative power that this cover exists.
The new instrumentation on “The Wild Kindness” doesn’t stray far from that of the original, but the choral arrangement lends it a whole new dimension. The remote nature of the collaboration, as well as the vast range of vocal styles on display, pushes the group further from church choir territory and closer to the stadium singalong zone, but this is for the best. The track is a tribute to Berman, whose voice was never perfectly in tune: his untrained basso shone out from beneath the mix on every track.
The cover starts with a portion of the group singing in imperfect unison. The effect is pleasantly jarring, and the tension pays off when more voices join in harmony, sanding the rougher voices smooth and moving toward the consonance of the hook, which hits like a weighted blanket, so comforting it almost hurts.
In the Ben Berman-directed video Bill, Bonnie and Cassie's faces are projected onto the face of actor Mikey Kampmann, which has been transformed into a chroma key with green paint. He moves like a fawn down a mountain into LA's downtown, where he prances through its sparsely populated streets, catching odd looks from masked pedestrians. At the start of the guitar solo, he asks for a cut and plops down dejectedly next to a trashcan to eat a burrito—which, at one point, gets a bigger burrito (Chipotle, perhaps) projected onto it. On the third verse, we see the singers in their own remote locations—Cassie biking down a leaf-strewn mountain, Bonnie walking past a backyard trampoline, Bill sitting in front of a blank wall, and then a flipbook-style close-up montage of the rest of the group. On the final chorus, their faces flit across Kampmann's, and those of dancer Nicole Hagen and Colleen Hendricks as they all fawn-dance down a sun-dappled driveway. As the song fades out, Kampmann plays with Boneman the Dog (no link available) in a dirt park, and finally, picks up his poo, holding the world to its word before the credits roll.
Bill and Bonnie have each had their fair share of heartbreak and hardship, but they both seem to be stable these days, and their latest collab is proof that radical decency doesn’t have to upend the lives of those who practice it. Shining out into the wild kindness has caused some of history’s most singular artists to burn out like dying stars. Still, we must spurn the sin of giving into the familiar tug of unchecked irony, which will ultimately pull us so far from ourselves that we dissipate into the wild silence. If B&B can do it, so can we.
Raphael Helfand is Laid Off NYC's Editorial Director and co-edits our Music section. Get to know him better: @raphael_helfand
*thumbnail image: Bill Callahan & Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, by Hanly Banks Callahan & Mabel Cooper, courtesy of Drag City.