Like Santiago, the grizzled fisherman in Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea
, Bill Callahan (aka Smog) spends much of his gripping 12th album exploring the notion that "a man can be destroyed, but not defeated." The songs on A River Ain't Too Much to Love
are mostly spartan, acoustic-folk arrangements colored with bits of piano, violin, and brushed percussion. In them, nature has its way with Callahan's cast of characters: Murky rivers nearly drown them, and ever-present brambles scratch and claw at their limbs. They grapple with the man-made world too: In "The Well," the narrator stares "into the black black black" of an abandoned well in the woods, which 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."