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Bill “Smog” Callahan’s new album, Knock Knock, his seventh for Drag City, reads like a story that begins with a suggestion to his main squeeze: “Let’s Move to the Country.” Inevitably, the singer high-tails it out of his new hometown; for Smog, “the best idea I ever had” (on “I Could Drive Forever”) is to split. And off he goes….”Hit the Ground Running” and “Cold Blooded Old Times” have a kind of Velvet Underground/Bowie feel that allows Smog to be less grave and more rhythmic, stretching out the jam longer. It makes Knock Knock a more satisfying, less punishing pop record with a cohesion that earlier, sometimes morbid Smog albums lacked—even the brilliant, home-recorded lo-fi gem Julius Caesar. Smog steers clear of crippling despair, issuing a warning against bitterness as he leaves a mess behind, and sometimes he lets his well-concealed sense of humor guide. On 1996’s sparse EP Kicking a Couple Around, Smog’s voice and guitar gave us such personal confessions—bleakly hung-up sketches from his torn-up notebook like “Back in School”—that there wasn’t need for much instrumentation. Knock Knock at times builds from a sturdy frame of minimal guitar and keyboard that Smog and producer Jim O’Rourke (Faust, Tortoise) set up, and presents Smog ’99 as a kind of Bowie (with his Eno) in Berlin for our time. It’s on his return journey, in “I Could Drive Forever” (from South Carolina to Maryland, I imagine), that he finds his fading memory his only friend. Playing shows for a few years solo, he has once again enlisted a band—perhaps his world has to admit more than one or two extra people to avoid devastating collapse.

—John Dugan

Smog plays the Black Cat Thursday, March 4, with Drunk and Telegraph Melts.