Smog - A River Ain't Too Much To Love

It doesn't make any sense but it has an enjoyably eerie feel about it.

 

The powers that be are calling this his best album yet. At the very least they are suggesting that it is a return to form. Which is pretty strange when you think how good Supper, Smog's previous album, was. Not having every Smog platter I can't confirm the former assertion and, having enjoyed Supper so much, I'm not sure that I'd go along with the latter assertion either. But A River Ain't Too Much To Love is still, as you might expect, a very good album.

 

Bill Callahan is a funny old stick. The last time I saw him live there was no smile and no banter. He announced that he would only be playing songs from his current album. In  Eric Morecambe fashion he then said that as a treat he would not necessarily play them in the same order as they appeared on the album. In fact, so deadpan is Callahan, on record too, that he is a kind of indie Gilbert and George. Part of the joy of Smog is wondering whether, once the camera and the mike are away, he suddenly lets slip the façade and, well, has a bit of fun. I can't imagine him sashaying around his apartment in a silk dressing gown, drinking cocktails along to Barry Manilow tracks, but nonetheless it's a thought.

 

For those unaware of the way Smog works, it goes likes this. Bill Callahan sings in lugubrious fashion songs that seem to highlight varying degrees of misanthropy.

 

Sometimes these songs are so black they are almost funny, but only in the way that W.G. Sebald sometimes made you wonder if he could really be so depressed about everything. Take, for example, the song I Feel Like the Mother of the World. Callahan gradually teases out the full extent of the title so that he sings 'I feel like the mother of the world, with two children, fighting.' Such ridiculous self-pity must be a joke, mustn't it?

 

The album kicks off with its least immediate track, Palimpsest. When Smog tracks go wrong (a series Channel 5 have yet to pick up) they remain dirges, free of hooks and glimmers of light. Palimpsest doesn't quite fall into this trap but it isn't a million miles away and is saved by the lyrics and its brevity. The album gets into its stride with Say Valley Maker and the next track, The Well. Smog albums never exactly get going – the pace, like the mood, tends to be funereal – but they can sometimes be propelled along with gentle frugs. The Well tells a strange story about forests,  dripping water, wells (you might have guessed that) and mysterious females.

 

It doesn't make any sense but it has an enjoyably eerie feel about it. Rock Bottom Riser is one of the stand out tracks. It must also be one of the most beautiful tracks Callahan has written. He starts off by saying how much he loves his family and states that he bought his guitar to pledge his love to them. Given that this is Smog it couldn't possibly be maudlin, and it isn't.

 

The album continues to trundle along without great variations of pace and with few embellishments. The album is basically Bill and his guitar, with Bill, apparently, singing about two millimetres from the microphone. Jim White adds drums to most of the tracks (often just using brushes) and a few feature piano and violin. The star of the album, as with most Smog albums, is Callahan's voice. Its prominence here may be the reason for the claims that it is his best album. On first listen it is possible for the album to pass you by. It is only on repeated, or careful, listening that you realise how much Callahan does with his slow, deep rumble. The songs ultimately emerge from his phrasing – the way he holds back saying things, or the way he emphasises / repeats certain words.

 

There is no way that this album is going to convert anyone who is agnostic about Smog's charms. Maybe it is a little more country than previous ones and maybe it is a little more pared back than some of his others. But this is still a Smog album and long may they continue.

 

Words: Chris Dawson