Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest (Drag City/Caroline)
A couple of years ago Bill Callahan told me that “learning to actually appreciate other activities for themselves, besides making music”, having “a much more well-rounded life”, had served to help the music, but also turned him into a better human being.
A wife, a child, turning 50, and at the beginning of it, falling in love – “You have to sacrifice yourself in some ways to keep a love going. I don’t mean that in a bad way; in a good way.” – fundamentally changed things, including his songs and how frank he would be within it.
“I realised that that’s what the music is about also, the cards you have in hand.”
Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest is the natural outcome, the inevitable outcome, of this re-evaluation and realignment. The sometimes brutal, and often blackly funny, territory of songs that had been his forte from his earliest recordings, particularly as Smog - the land of alienation and almost clinical observation, of aspirations kept low and resignation kept close - are not the cards in hand now.
Instead, Callahan now muses from a place of connection and need. That is, of being needed and wanting to be needed, because the responsibility feels right and not just heavy. Having others look to him for value and not just performance is both frightening in some ways and richly rewarding.
“The house is full of whatever I bring to the table,” he sings in Son Of The Sea, which bears a faint suggestion of shanty, a definite thumbprint of country, and healthy dose of wryness. “I had a son, giving birth nearly killed me/Some say I died, and all that survived was my lullabies.”
He remains a singer of spare delivery and a songwriter of almost skeletal songs whose sonic elements always play second fiddle to space and whose lyrics often seem pared down to their absolute minimum. In Circles that space carries a quiet acceptance that is like a fire-warmed comfort, giving us a song about death that is actually bare but feels wrapped in something indefinable but touchingly human.
Not that this predisposition to sparseness stops him embellishing here, bringing in touches of jazz in the bass lines of Confederate Jasmine and The Ballad Of The Hulk or the rhythm of 747, adding a quiet elegance to the acoustic guitar of Circles and a sweetness to the drolly amusing What Comes After Certainty, or finding jauntiness around the pedal steel of Watch Me Get Married and in the vibraphone of Call Me Anything.
However, lyrically this long collection of 20 songs, an old style double album really, is in some ways the story of his internal travels and – as one of the rare songwriters who works from words to music, rather than beginning with the music - the chief explainer for the sounds.
References, direct or oblique, to his parents as well as his son, sit alongside self-critiques which sometimes actually sparkle. He questions without rancour and characters emerge dusty rather than broken (I enjoy the cocked eyebrow of the jazz-blues Camels for that reason), even the Young Icarus who confesses that “the past has always lied to me, the past never gave me anything, but the blues”.
In a song such as Released there’s anger but it flares and dies, its barely more than two minutes length a fair summary of where bitterness sits in 2019’s version of Bill Callahan. That it is followed by the ruminative What Comes After Certainty, where the main character says “and I got the woman of my dreams” and it doesn’t sound smart arse, and “when you take responsibility for your own divinity, true love is not magic, it’s certainty” and it doesn’t sound trite, says much about the centrality of mood.
The conundrum here is whether the flimsier songs, and there are a couple, the ones which jog beside you like a friendly puppy – and I’m thinking of the ye olde Hopalong Cassidy whistler Lonesome Valley, which carries its tropes like weight in the saddlebag, rather than the sly alternative children’s song Tugboats & Tumbleweeds, whose temper is even and whose atmosphere is warm - are more disposable than he’s ever been because he’s happy or because they’re just not as good.
Maybe it’s me and not him. Maybe I’m just unused to Callahan not always being consequential. It felt a bit of a shock really.
Let’s not overplay this though, for the balance on the record is heavily weighted to the quality, whether happy or otherwise. Happiness is not itself a sign of weakness here and Callahan’s songwriting is still capable of making you hold your breath, without realising you are doing so.
He’s good that way.