Pablo Neruda’s late work consisted mainly of poems that spoke of small, seemingly inconsequential things—a shaker of salt, a lemon, a bed. “I confess that to write with simplicity has been my most difficult undertaking,” he once said. Smog, otherwise known as Bill Callahan, has seemingly also become a master of making the simple and ordinary breathtaking. His latest, A River Ain’t Too Much To Love, is no exception—a luscious collection of his observations about the usually overlooked world. Callahan describes things like rocks and pine trees with tremendous ease and poetic grace. He tackles love and loss, joy and sorrow, with the same effortlessness.
Admittedly, my knowledge of Smog prior to this album was limited to their contribution to the film High Fidelity,”Cold Blooded Old Times,” with its toe-tapping melody and understated snarl of regret and longing. The growth of Smog, both of Callahan as a songwriter and Smog as a band, is evident with A River Ain’t Too Much to Love. These are not simply songs, but observant poems set to subdued chords that echo the landscape of Callahan’s new home in Texas.
Recorded at Willie Nelson’s Pedernales Studio in Spicewood, Texas, Callahan’s people trump A River Ain’t Too Much to Love as “an heirloom… the lifestyle of the immortal American wanderer” and they are not far from true.Yet while musicians like Devendra Banhart lend their rambling dovetailed songs to well-planned product endorsement (think the nimble hipster on his antique bike riding through empty fields in the oft-seen Fat Tire ads), Smog’s authentic on-the-road intonations are far more cowboys and campfire than organic beer.
“Say Valley Maker,” a beautiful reflection on the rough side of love, has Callahan repeating over and over again, “there is no love where there is no bramble.” He has brought human emotion to the range, and, in doing so, has redefined his craftsmanship as an artist. Likewise, “Rock Bottom Riser” shines as a lazy day waltz, and his cover of the traditional “In the Pines” is poured out like thick molasses, the perfect version for singing along next to the roaring fire.
Some claim that Callahan has written “the great American novel in song.” I hesitate to agree, reserving that honor to the Salingers, the Kerouacs, and the Steinbecks, be they musical or literary. What Callahan has done is record an album that will withstand the times– an album that merits room in your collection, perfect to play when the winding road ahead dissolves in to the pine trees.
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