A River Ain't Too Much to Love

Like Santiago, the grizzled fisherman in Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, Bill Callahan (aka Smog) spends much of his superb, gripping twelfth album exploring the notion that "a man can be destroyed but not defeated." Across its ten tracks -- mostly spartan, acoustic-folk arrangements colored with bits of piano, violin, and brushed percussion -- nature has its way with his cast of characters: Murky rivers nearly drown them ("Rock Bottom Riser," which features Joanna Newsom on keys), and ever-present brambles scratch and claw at their limbs. They grapple with the manmade world, too: In "The Well," the narrator stares into the black black black of an abandoned well in the woods that reflects his own darkened soul. But while Callahan's rich, riveting baritone sounds like sad surrender on its surface, a sense of noble defiance occasionally emerges -- as he sings on "Say Valley Maker," Bury me in wood/And I will splinter/Bury me in stone/And I will quake/Bury me in water/And I will geyser/Bury me in fire/And I'm gonna phoenix.


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