Smog: A River Ain’t Too Much to Love

[24 July 2005]

By Rob Horning

Bill Callahan, the songwriter who does business under the moniker of Smog, is the victim of his own consistency. His albums, which come out more or less every year, have been so uniformly excellent since 1995’s Wild Love that no one makes much of a fuss about them anymore. His approach over the years has varied only slightly; he used to be more of one-man band early on, getting himself lumped in with the lo-fi, bedroom-folk fad, but more recently he’s worked with collaborators—Dirty Three drummer Jim White, whose proven acutely sensitive to Callahan’s rhythmical ebbs and flows, has even become a holdover. But the bedrock of virtually every Smog songs remains Callahan’s deliberate guitar playing, often clipped arpeggio triplets sounding chords with no embellishment, and his nonpareil voice, the perfect instrument for relating his elusive first-person parables. He has a limited vocal range, but he’s always more than made up for it with an exceedingly subtle delivery and rich timbre, freighting every seemingly straightforward line with unsettling ambiguity or leavening it with an unlikely epiphany. And he has a marvelous knack for pushing a metaphor to one more point of comparison than you expect, extending it one more line, so that what you thought was the gist suddenly becomes much richer and more complicated.

On A River Ain’t Too Much to Love, the latest indispensable Smog album, an example of this comes in “I Feel Like the Mother of the World”—the title is the song’s refrain, but Callahan appends to it “...with two children… fighting”, wryly undercutting the image while amplifying it. This track is the new album’s lightest and most immediately accessible—you wouldn’t think using an instrument like a hammered dulcimer would lead to accessibility, but it suits it perfectly; it’s not at all incongruous, evoking spaciousness and flow (and not a Renaissance festival). The opener, the slow-developing “Palimpsest”, abruptly inserts a simile of a Southern bird that has failed to migrate, which you assume will be dropped just as quickly until a later line complicates it—“Winter exposes the nests and I’m gone.”

“The Well”, a loping, mesmerizing song showcasing White’s intelligent accompaniment, extends the lyrical strategy to all-out allegory, in this case about writer’s block and inspiration, which climaxes with a surprisingly plaintive “Fuck all y’all”. Shouting down a well could possibly represent a singer’s projecting out to the blackness from the stage, echoing a frequent Callahan theme of artist/audience interdependence. But to pin down any precise equivalencies would sell this understated fable short; every listen can yield a slightly different interpretation.

At the heart of the album are two closely related tracks: First, a decidedly un-rootsy take on a oft-recorded traditional “In the Pines”: Slowed to a lugubrious crawl with spooky whistling and a mournful fiddle playing only intermittently, Callahan strips it to only its most basic building blocks lyrically and dissects it into a stilted, unsteady rhythm, disguising the narrative by breaking up the steady pattern we’re accustomed to folk ballads using and laying emphasis on unexpected details. Of course, with its wealth of dense, inscrutable metaphors—“the longest train”, “the North wind”, the weeping and moaning and the leaving home, the pines themselves—overwritten with hundreds of years of history, it perfectly suits Callahan’s style; it is the very definition of the aforementioned palimpsest.

This is followed by another song about a dubious journey, “Drinking at the Dam”, a wistful reminiscence of being young, cutting school and discovering “skin mags in the brambles” with unnamed friends. The moment—“Drinking at the dam/ Holding back what I can”—becomes through repetition an emblem of adult struggle, of what is lost during adolescence at some inconsequential unanticipated moment when a palpable darkness suddenly occludes erstwhile innocent pranks. This narrative seems to look back to “In the Pines”, filling it in and drawing off some of its elemental power. We’re left with a sense of how inevitable that loss of innocence is, how many traps always already lay in wait for us, how we’re all in the pines before we know it

But as always is the case with Smog, the album is not without its moments of whimsy and self-deprecation. “I’m New Here” features this deadpan exchange: “Met a woman in a bar / I told her I was hard to get to know / and near impossible to forget / She said I had an ego on me / the size of Texas / Well I’m new here / and I forget / does that mean big or small?”

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