Release Date: Jun 14, 2019
Record label: Drag City
Bill Callahan's latest is an album of contradictions. At twenty songs and exceeding an hour it's his longest work, yet unlike his past output, not a track passes the five-minute mark. It's a sprawling album, both lyrically and in terms of its musical twists and turns, but its execution is spare. The album conveys a deeply personal narrative, yet is mythic, timeless, and cosmic in scope.
Before Bill Callahan took his unexpected hiatus of 6 years, he had been releasing a steady stream of albums as Smog, and then under his own name, for a couple of decades. In this time he had managed to build up something of a mythos; the witty, sardonic, charming, good looking songwriter, whose former partners included Chan Marshall and Joanna Newsom, and in whose musical company it was always a pleasure to spend time. His tales were ribald and scruffy, full of smirk-inducing quips and observations.
Listening to a Bill Callahan album used to mean contemplating solitude. His music wasn't about aloneness, but the man making it sounded supremely alone. His baritone voice rumbled near the bottom of his arrangements, and it sounded so serious, so grave: If you weren't paying attention to what he was saying, you might have conscripted his music into all sorts of cliched lone-wolf expeditions: staring at mountains, nighttime highway drives, reading Hemingway on a fishing trip.
The 20 short songs that make up Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest leave behind the mordant mournfulness that has characterised Bill Callahan's career for three decades to reveal a songwriter blissfully married with a young son and writing "mountain music": Appalachian-tinged country songs with a Spanish flourish (think a laconic Wille Nelson), mostly acoustic but with the odd harmonica and pedal steel to offset that trademark baritone. Songs reflect on his outsider past (The Ballad Of The Hulk, Young Icarus), deal directly with the writer's block he feared happiness would bring (Writing) but now boast a welcome immediacy and intimacy as he lays his new life proudly bare - less arch than before, these are brief diary entries of a life he's too busy living to pick apart and described with the humour Callahan has always had but now minus the darkness "The panic room is now a nursery," reveals Son Of The Sea. "I got the woman of my dreams/And an imitation Eames," adds What Comes After Certainty.
There’s something a bit disarming about hearing Bill Callahan singing about domestic bliss. This is a man who, after all, has built a 30-year career on being the epitome of the ‘sad man with a guitar’ figure: a man whose song, I Break Horses, was about the inability of a man to commit to a relationship, and whose 2007 album Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle is one of the truly great break-up albums of our age. Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest though, Callahan’s 17th studio album (including all the records he recorded under the name Smog), has been trailed as a double record full of songs about his marriage, children and general happiness.
Bill Callahan built a 30-year career with his eyes fixed on the outside world, matching existential pondering about landscapes vast and small to soundscapes equally grand and intimate. Seventh studio album under his own name, Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest narrows its focus to his immediate sight line: domestic life. Since 2013's Dream River, the Maryland native's gotten married, become a father, and returned home to Austin after a brief stint in Santa Barbara.
Bill Callahan packed a lot of living into the years between Dream River and Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest: He married in 2014, welcomed a son in 2015, and lost his mother in 2018. These experiences couldn't help but inform his music, and on his fifth solo album, he sounds like he's rediscovered the wonders of life (and death) and is primed to share them in a way that feels new to his lengthy career. Though Shepherd is over an hour long, its songs are on a smaller, and more personal, scale than any of Callahan's previous work -- instead of panoramas, they're family snapshots.
A long time coming, but well worth the wait, 'Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest' is a rich and complex album, layered with beautiful explorations of birth, life and death In the six years since his last album, the supreme 'Dream River', the often-inscrutable, almost-always-brilliant Bill Callahan has gone through a lot. In 2014 he got married, then he and his wife had their first child, and then he cared for his mother, who died of cancer two-and-a-half years after her diagnosis. One of America's modern greats when it comes to songwriting, it's fair to say he's had much to take in.
Now a happy family man, Callahan has described his first album in six years as an attempt to prove that the change - the contentment and stability he's found during an extended gap from recording - doesn't have to signal an end for the restless quest of creativity. This sprawling, occasionally confounding and often sparklingly beautiful beast of an album certainly succeeds in this mission. In recent interviews Callahan has spoken of his doubts about the feasibility of fitting his musical career around his new responsibilities following marriage and children.
Rating: NNNN "Well, it's been such a long time / Why don't you come on in?" These are the first words we hear from Bill Callahan on Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest, his first new collection of music in six years. Much has changed in that time, at least on the surface. The patron saint of monotone baritones has become a husband and father and settled down in Texas.
"The panic room is now a nursery," sings veteran leftfield tunesmith Bill Callahan on Son of the Sea. It's just one instance of pregnant understatement on a 20-track album that ends this extraordinary American songwriter's six years away from the release schedules. Life happened: marriage, a baby son, the death of his mother and now, a purple patch of tunes that combine the allusive rigour of his finest work with a looser, chatty style.