Bill Callahan (aka Smog) is a man obsessed with sex and death. Well, who ain't? But the lo-fi singer-songwriter's masterful use of allegory is what sets him apart from the rest of us. Both a lyrical prankster and an earnest crooner, Callahan has earned a loyal following, who will undoubtedly agree this is his finest work since 1997's Red Apple Falls. At last Smog has eased off the rock and roll to bring us a country offering both compelling and complete. Recorded live at Willie Nelson's studio in Spicewood, Texas, the album boasts typically stark instrumentation, providing a Johnny Cash-style backdrop for Callahan's stories. The only flourish is the occasional backing vocal or brief cameo by some odd instrument--in one case hammer dulcimer, and in another, Joanna Newsom playing (strangely, not harp but) piano. This is an album for people who actually pay attention to lyrics, who count reckoning among their pastimes. And while Smog albums may be perceived as conceptual, what Callahan is really delving into is theme, challenging the listener to consider all the connotations of a river--time and change, consistency and fate. But don't let me tell you; solve the mystery yourself.