A River Ain’t Too Much To Love
ill Callahan’s 12th full-length album under his Smog moniker finds the lo-fi troubadour in a place he hasn’t often found himself of late: his own skin.
While Callahan’s songs sound personal and intimate, one gets the sense that he is always playing a role of some sort: drifters, cowboys, obsessed/jilted/broken lovers, drunks, and other shades of mournful hard-luck losers (oh, and Prince). Despite the fact that he has played these roles convincingly, Callahan generally seems removed from the material, as if he were more comfortable being someone else. The fact that he tends to record with a completely different cast of characters from album to album lends to this sense of distance: the refusal for musical continuity contributes to the lack of a definitive identity. He seems more comfortable behind a mask, and he has made a rather long and successful career of it.
Not so on A River Ain’t Too Much To Love. Produced by Callahan and recorded with Connie Lovatt on bass and Jim White on drums at Willie Nelson’s Pedernales Studio in Austin, TX, over 10 days, the simple instrumentation (aided at times by hammer dulcimer, air drum, fiddle, and on one track, piano by labelmate Joanna Newsom) enhances the sense of intimacy. The subtle backing musicians never overshadow Callahan’s reedy baritone and direct lyrics; they merely add subtle shading and light in the appropriate spots—a restraint reminiscent of Bob Dylan’s use of studio musicians on laid-back classics like John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline, where the band clearly have chops and you can hardly picture the albums without them; yet they never overstep their boundaries. They succeed magnificently here, as Callahan, like Dylan, has that rare power to keep an audience transfixed with his unique style.
The songs themselves work as a concept piece, although a rather vague one. Callahan told Billboard.com, “I realized I had a bunch of songs about rivers and some sort of imagery, and once I got a few of them it started to fit into everything I had half-finished.” And so, we get a very outdoors-y feeling record, something you might literally hear around a campfire. The nature images abound in tracks like “Say Valley Maker,” “Drinking At The Dam,” “I Feel Like The Mother Of The World,” and a cover of the old chestnut “In The Pines”: water, trees, rocks, and earth, with Bill roaming among them like some born-again nature boy with a masters degree in creative writing.
Nowhere is this more apparent then the epic “The Well,” a sort of updated talking blues story-song that finds old Bill roaming the countryside in search of broken glass and hollering down the well like some curious teenager (“Fuck all y’all,” he yells, though as is his style, he lets it fly in a hushed monotone that is all the more effective because of its unexpected subtlety.) And despite its outdoor settings and feel, River is resoundingly intimate and personal sounding in a way Smog albums have rarely been, at least not all the way through, and at least not for a good long while (basically, since he started using other musicians at all). Callahan is revealing himself to us at last, or at least the way he sees himself: a simple lo-fi troubadour, wandering the countryside, making music and forging relationships where he can and drifting on when the fancy strikes him. Figuratively speaking, anyway, this is what he has always been—jumping from band to band, experimenting with styles and textures and instrumentation. Now, he’s singing of his own experience. He may not be literally rambling in the woods, but he may as well have been.
Callahan was quoted on Billboard.com as saying, “This is the first record that I listen to and can say, ‘Yeah, that’s me.’” Whether an artist as mercurial as he has been will care to continue that way is a long shot at best. And of course, there’s a very strong chance that this new, open, personal Bill Callahan is just another one of the many roles he has written for himself and he has fooled me again. In any case, I’m going to enjoy it while I can.
STYLUSMAGAZINE.COM'S ALBUM OF THE WEEK: MAY 30 - JUNE 5, 2005