Bill Callahan “Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest” (Drag City, 2019)

Bill Callahan makes everything sound momentous – that dark growl of a baritone, reminiscent of Kurt Wagner, adds weight of course.  And then there’s the quietly, and intellectually, confessional side of his lyrics which means that the lyrics tend to drop like concrete blocks, cemented permanently in place before the next thought is paraded slyly before the listener. And although it has been six years from his last release nothing has changed fundamentally in the music although ‘Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest‘ is if anything even further stripped back, predominantly guitar and vocal and little else other than little electronic effects, found sounds and the plinking of thumb piano.

Across the twenty tracks of ‘Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest‘ Bill Callahan reveals what’s being going on his life – getting married, having a child, losing his mother – it’s all laid out as straight as can be, and it’s all wrapped up in folk-like myth. Take ‘Watch Me Get Married‘ which has on one hand a big-brush description of a wedding gathering, an allusion to the love of his life “the orchid in the canyon is the one for me” and a ‘Fly me to the Moon‘ sentiment coupled with a knowing aside “let’s spend a light year together – oh I know it’s a distance – from here to the stars“. Layers upon layers. Songs flow into one another in a natural way that encourages a feeling of greater revelation – if one can only dig through to it.  The sparse ‘Shepherd’s Welcome‘ literally invites the listener into this new world – which has been constructed on the back of a solid floor of traditional song – the wood comes from the felled trees of “In The Pines” – but which also has a more modern psychological aspect bubbling underneath – the last line “did you have that dream again the Black Dog on the Beach ?” blends into a song of that title which then travels through a dreamlike state, with stream of consciousness images butting up against each other. Is it about a depressed state – the black dog? Is it a disconnected recollection of Callahan’s father? Whose departure is captured by the phrase “Well I can describe it best as the year the lion left the family crest” – is it a younger Callahan himself going out into the world ?  At the risk of quoting Spandau Ballet “Questions questions give me no answers“.

Each song has these shifts between the cryptic, the transparent, the oblique and the jovial. Often in the same song. Which means that ‘Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest‘ is an album full of riches, generally of an optimistic even a contented sensibility. ‘Call Me Anything‘ is an upbeat self assessment – it bounces along on a tune that recalls The Shadows, proffering an image of Callahan performing the simplest of forward, back, step to the side dances whilst he offers up personal insights “Now I may not have been born to deliver the truth / But I sure do love to ride the route“, before tasking the listener to be careful with the labels they assign him “let the blind call me dark / …/ let the butchers grind our hearts and claim there’s no love within” before finally admitting with a laugh that it’s all so much more simple than that “You can call me anything just as long as I can sing – I sing for answers, I sing for good listeners, and tired dancers”. No secrets anymore.

Listen, as Bill Callahan achieves a bliss filled adulthood.
8/10

Author: Jonathan Aird

Sure, I could climb high in a tree, or go to Skye on my holiday. I could be happy. All I really want is the excitement of first hearing The Byrds, the amazement of decades of Dylan's music, or the thrill of seeing a band like The Long Ryders live. That's not much to ask, is it?

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