There's some kind of desert here, some grand landscape hinged between dusk and
dawn that Bill Callahan evokes. It comes into being with his deep, deep,
dry voice, the way he almost talks a song more than he sings it; in lyrics of
childhood and sensual aloneness ("lighting matches and dropping them into a wet
glass"), and romance that arrives in what can only be described as moments of
thirsty restraint; in a line or two of humor, for Callahan is not without a
smile; in spare music cusping between acoustic and electric residues that reference
a more cowboy-blue Lou Reed, with a touch of Latino, cross-the-border feelings
(not for nothing was this record made in Willie Nelson's Texas studio); in the
train-shuffling, country-waltz contributions of Australia's Jim White, best known
for his fire-and-ebb drumming with the Dirty Three and very arguably the finest
drummer at work today when it comes to music with a lyric heart.
Let's say it now: Smog, the name by which Bill Callahan passes in the world,
is fundamentally poetic, confessional, ecstatic with words. His 12th record
holds no surprises for longtime fans, and yet here it is, his best, his greatest.
religious and without masks despite the weary edges, the gently ironic tongue.
There's a joy here on A River Ain't Too Much to Love that is both unforgettable
and sweeping. Listening to it I thought of Van Morrison's Astral Weeks,
for feel-alike rather than sound-alike reasons. Which is to say it made me
feel young and old and sad and free. Pure soul cinema, it made me see the answer
the question Callahan raises, "Is there anything as still as sleeping horses?" It
made me want to ask my wife, "Will you bury me in wood when the river runs dry,
will you bury me in stone," and tell her "I never really realized death was what
it meant to make it on my own." In the high dark, desert atmospheres of it, I
felt like I was Sam Shepard and Johnny Cash combined. Which is to say
I felt alone and alive and pretty damned good.