My song of the moment is Bill Callahan’s “Small Plane”, a singer new to me. It sounds like a song Leonard Cohen might have recorded between Songs from a Room and Songs of Love and Hate if he had a gentler heart. I was playing it a lot last week in the midst of revising my novel. It’s a strange song, keeping quite strictly to its subject matter, the memories of flying a small plane with a lover or perhaps a parent. “You used to take me up; I watched and learned how to fly.” It reads as an extended metaphor which never fully declares itself, and thus stays elusive and richer.
The line I find most beautiful is “I always went wrong in the same place, where the river splits toward the sea”. It’s the “always”, the past tense, the wistful delivery. And the evocation of flying itself, of having to navigate by the landmarks below. The whole song has the sense of a dreamy flight in a small plane – flying as a mystical, existential experience. It needs to be listened to just as audio, I think, and not the live clip; the disembodiment is part of the haunting.
After my favourite line – perhaps it’s a flaw in the song, I’m undecided, when he sings “That couldn’t possibly be you and me”, the one time he declares the metaphor.
His tense shifts halfway through, and he’s now “a lucky man flying this plane”, as if he’s forgotten that it’s over. That’s not a flaw. It’s a redemption, as if the act of singing can truly bring back what is lost.