A review of “Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest” by Bill Callahan

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Rating: 8.7/10

Merely saying Bill Callahan’s music career has been a journey is an understatement. From his abrasive beginnings as Smog to his slow transition into sparkling, magnificent folk rock under his own name, there have distinct changes and transitions in sound and atmosphere as both the scope and technology of his recordings have expanded. Nearly 30 years into his career, he’s making his best work yet, though it makes one wonder if his fans from the beginning of his career are his same fans now.

The last decade of Callahan’s career has nestled itself around the thick warm blanket of his voice. Several of the albums from this period have entered the indie rock canon as instant classics, both critically acclaimed and persistently popular among the folkies of the world. One in particular, the epically gorgeous “Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle,” which produced songs like “Jim Cain” and “Rococo Zephyr,” summoned such monstrous beauty from their arrangements they were almost overwhelming in their aesthetic perfection. It was even more interesting to find that the string quartets and sparkling folk arrangements sounded surprisingly revelatory with Callahan’s voice. These arrangements seemed to be so meticulously crafted as if to stand in contrast to the themes of loss and heartache that Callahan pondered.

It makes sense that Callahan would loosen up again, especially in the face of domestic happiness and contentment. Callahan’s new album “Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest,” is a double album that continues Callahan’s wandering explorations of his softer side. Part of the interest in listening to Callahan is this journey, to paraphrase some of his past lyrics, from dark to light, sometimes back to the dark, then into the light again. This journey came to fruition throughout the late 90s and 2000s as Callahan broadened his recording techniques and attracted leagues of talented musicians into the fold, eventually becoming a husky-voiced crooner for the new generation of indie music fans.

The new record isn’t painted in as many broad watercolor strokes as some he’s released in the last decade. It’s a little looser, a little wide open, almost as if he’s tired of the technicolor brilliance he accessed on “Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle,” and needs to let his arrangements relax a little bit inside of this new space he’s in. Happy and releasing his first new record in six years, Callahan isn’t in any hurry.

Over an hour of music pours out of “Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest,” and not a minute of that is wasted. That doesn’t mean the album doesn’t linger. Sometimes it’s like stretching out in the sun on a lazy Sunday or wandering aimlessly on an abandoned beach. The closest analogue one could probably find to Callahan’s latest collection of recordings is a boring afternoon where daydreams flow readily, coursing deep into philosophical tangents and half-remembered events. Callahan’s mind on this album is flying off here, making poetic observations there, and always touching on a poignant thought just when you least expect it.

“It feels good to be writing again” Callahan sings on “Writing.” “Clear water flows from my pen / It sure feels good to be writing again.” The return to this state is accompanied by serene guitar arpeggios and soft tones of pedal steel. Writing seems to flow naturally for Callahan, like on the song “747,” where he wakes in an airplane and observes that they are “flying through some stock footage of heaven.” This serves as a launching point for Callahan to wax poetic on the nature of light, and how we see and experience it at the pivotal moments of birth and death. The lyrics flow as if they were direct thoughts from Callahan’s consciousness, a mind that delights in making metaphorical connections through mundane life experiences. He’s probably doing this all the time, though now he’s writing them down again, reminding us that we are “flies on a mule / and we’re good at what we do.”

There is a restfulness on this album, a repose that feels as ruminative and quixotic as much as it dwells in the wonder of actually discovering happiness in this world. On “What Comes After Certainty,” he casually remarks “Well, I never thought I’d make it this far / Little old house, recent-model car / And I got the woman of my dreams.” Sometimes happiness can shell-shock us a little bit, leaving us in a state where we can’t believe our luck and start wondering when we’re gonna lose it all. Callahan certainly knows that eventually we all lose everything, coloring his songs with touches of death’s inevitably that lend them an even deeper weight.

“What Comes After Certainty” has that trademark Callahan devastation about it. It’s hard to pinpoint what it is: his deep, rumbling voice; the way it seems like he’s almost swallowing the mic; or his casual timing as he hits that deft chord right as his lyrics hit that critical word “magic”. “What comes after certainty?” He asks at the songs beginning. At first the response is “A world of mystery.” When the question is repeated at song’s end, there is no answer.

“Confederate Jasmine” finds Callahan confessing intimate details about his relationship with his wife, an intimacy that transcends the borders of normal storytelling. In fact, the song could be said to all take place in his head as he is making love with her. “The heart of a man / Is a fork in the road / That’s where I stand / As the ocean pulls the moon from behind the cloud.” Is this racing through Callahan’s mind as he is the throes of love?

Callahan constantly ponders death here, but at this point in his career it feels more like the grace note at the end of a sweet song instead of looming dread waiting for us all. On the appropriately titled “Circles,” Callahan frankly tells us his feelings: “Death is beautiful / We say goodbye to so many friends / Who have no equals.” Earlier his musings on a “face as stark as Genesis / And I can’t stop the quest / Who can stop the quest?” brings forth religious imagery scattered throughout the album, such as a sight of “God’s face in the water” on “What Comes After Certainty.” The sense of divinity, of mythology, in Callahan’s songs has grown much stronger over time.

Callahan’s recent work is also unabashedly contemplative. It’s that zen of everyday life, the sort that could find you writing a book of poems on some worn down old-shores. The words seem to pour out of a narrator that really pays attention, not only to the excitements and spectacles of life, but to the mundane, normal things that accompany us on our individual journeys through time. In this way he ties everyday occurrences in with profound themes of life and death and discovery all in the same package. Nothing is marked and separated here in Callahan’s world, merely ebbing and flowing as the album shuffles along.

Maybe that’s the reason The Guardian feels that maybe Callahan has found enlightenment, in a way, by just not resisting it. With the way “Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest” casually trots along this narrow path, watching the world flow on at times and then chiming in with its thoughts, the listener could definitely get that idea. Decorated in the deceptively simple charms of Callahan’s melodies, this is an album full of hard-won truths and brave grapplings with the world, one that will surely be marked as one of the year’s best.

 

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