Gold Record (Drag City)
It’s time to broaden the discussion around one of the finest, albeit quietest songwriters of our day. A miniaturist whose grasp of detail and ability to distil scene, character and plot just as much as melody, rhythm and air, gives you everything you needed while still leaving so much room to imagine more. And offers this in a lugubrious baritone and arrangements of hypnotic simplicity.
We’ve been talking with some wonder about “happy Bill Callahan” for a few years now, last year’s album, Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest , a culmination of that development as he approached life, death, marriage and children from the basis of a man who had found himself shocked with love in his life, and even more surprisingly, the means to enjoy it.
Gold Record, which seemingly snuck out into the world at the end of last month but needs to be shouted about for months to come, expands Callahan’s remit – the scope of his “happiness” – to a wider world. This is quite unexpected. And rather wonderful.
We’re talking about someone who, was never really a misanthrope: I don’t think you’d say he actively disliked his fellow humans, though some individuals left him quite unimpressed. But he cast an eye at best sceptical if not jaundiced on the ways of the world; his flashes of humour were sparkling but often quite dark-hued; his expectations of people generally were low – and mostly confirmed; and he told his minor-key tales with the air of the world-weary observer.
Yet here we are, listening to a song such as The Mackenzies, a gently ruminative (of course) blend of brushed drums, Texas night sky guitar and low hum bass, which begins with the narrator’s car breaking down in front of his house. As he futilely tries to turn the engine over, the old neighbour comes out to offer not just advice but an invitation to come in for coffee, eventually dinner, a bed and a closeness that reaches through a carapace of modern indifference, “as Jack and I bonded over our love of Mel Torme/And the early movies of Kid ‘N Play”.
As Callahan sings, they had never met before as “I’m the type of guy, who sees a neighbour outside/And stays inside and hides”, but as the evening progresses, finding their need and his coalescing, he says to himself “I wish that Jack would call me son, again” and come the morning Jack and Brenda appear at his door to tell him “Son, it’s ok/It’s ok”.
Just as disarming in its own way, and even prettier to listen to with its shimmering guitar and languorous tempo, is Pigeons, which opens the album with a wedding car driver explaining a journey taking two newlyweds in San Antonio far, far onwards, to the Mexican border.
They tell tales of the wedding, he enjoys their connection (“They seemed like a match, so I stopped looking for cracks in their road”) and when, seeing the gold band on his left hand, his advice is sought, so he ponders “as I drove with a smile”, before telling them “When you are dating, you only see each other, and the rest of us can go to hell/But when you are married, you’re married to the whole wide world”.
The bonus to Pigeons’ central tale are the wry, self-aware, nods to guideposts, comic moments: the deep-voiced Callahan beginning the song with “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash” and ending it with “Sincerely, L. Cohen” (priming you for, later in the album, a charming and funny song about Ry Cooder “A real straight spiner/Gold song 49er”); the little addendum to the advice given to the newlyweds “the rich, the poor/The sick and the well/The straights and the gays/And the people who say we don’t use these terms these days”: and bringing possibly the first use of the word plenipotentiary to popular music (unless Metternich wrote a tune or two).
Callahan’s storytelling is superb, genuinely earning the comparison to the best short story writers, with his range canvassing noir, domestic turns and the alternative western, as well the reflective mini-memoir and the subtle reportage. Every song has a moment – or five – of the exact right phrase, the ideal pitch of imagery, to set you in the story, or move it along, with as little excess as possible.
But, as with the aforementioned L. Cohen, it can be easy to home in on the words and the voice to the exclusion of the musical ideas. That would undersell how captivating these songs are: warm and measured, the elements minimal but not starkly so, the tunes opening out like slow blossoming flowers, the musical jokes as dry as the lyrical ones.
Bill Callahan is in great form. Enjoy.