Album Review: Bill Callahan - Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest
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. So when he disappeared for a while, the legend around him grew with the questions of his absence – something he may be poking fun at on this new album when he intones “some say I died” on ‘Son Of The Sea’.
In fact the truth was far more normal: Bill had fallen in love, settled down and started a family, welcoming his first child in 2015. Now, he returns to music a new man in a new state – mentally, physically and emotionally. His objective this time out seems to be to tell a good dose of truth, after all he’s had plenty of inspiration these last few years. Musically, it’ a move that means the cavalier, galloping side that has reared its head at times on his last few records is absent here. Instead, Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest stays at a mild canter throughout, as Callahan takes circuitous and fantastical approaches to express his observations on life.
His self-awareness has already been acknowledged, so it’s not a great surprise that Callahan welcomes us to the album singing “Well it’s been such a long time, why don’t you come on in?” He immediately introduces us to his new titular “Shepherd” persona, and continues to act like the consummate host to the listener throughout the record’s beautifully interwoven 20 tracks and 64 minutes.
However, it takes a moment for him to fully open up about his true happiness, and in the first segment of Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest we see some shades of his former persona. On ‘Shepherd’s Welcome’ he asks “have you ever seen a shepherd afraid to find his sheep?” seemingly referencing his years as a bachelor, poking fun at the joy he used to get from being thus. ‘Angela’ details a short-lived dalliance (“like motel curtains we never really met”), while he reminds us of his daft side on ‘The Ballad Of The Hulk’, telling us “I used to share a tailor with David Bruce Banner,” before adding “that’s the Hulk” parenthetically – in case we didn’t know.
It’s only once we reach the fifth track, ‘Writing’, that we start to see the new Bill Callahan clearly. In this simply wondrous track he sings about the joy of creating music once more, after a long absence. Given that he’s already amassed a great catalogue of albums, and now has a family to tend to, he could have put music behind him – but it’s nice to hear him fully realising that songwriting is in his very being. And, sharing the rediscovery of that in ‘Writing’, he delivers a captivating, imagistic, singalong chorus “music came down from the mountain and she danced with all the men.”
From this point, Callahan’s heart seems wide open for all to admire and revel in. Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest’s palette of acoustic ballads wreathed in upright bass, fiddle and assortment of other rustic sounds is the perfect hew for these songs of pure restful bliss. Whether he’s singing of the basic happiness and rejuvenation that a new day brings (‘Morning Is My Godmother’) or about committing his life to someone (‘Watching Me Get Married’), the unfiltered joy is overwhelming, and floods out of the songs and into the listener.
The most enthralling parts of the record come later, when he starts to fully relax and reveal himself, firstly about his new family life. ‘What Comes After Certainty’ is overflowing with romance, opening with one of the most earnest and profound things he’s ever sung: “true love is not magic, it’s certainty.” And while he’s now unafraid to be soppy, he’s still got a funny bone, later on in the track rhyming “I got the woman of my dreams/ and an imitation Eames.” The love of his family life comes out in gushes, with following track ‘Confederate Jasmine’ touching on hearing his son’s TV shows in the other room, his past with Alcoholics Anonymous, and getting a towel so he can have period sex with his wife.
Following this consummation, he takes a turn to satisfied self-contemplation for a few tracks. Once again he weighs up the simple pleasures and effortlessly turns them poetic; on ‘Call Me Anything’ singing about riding his bike (“I am a seagull made of man and metal”), and succinctly describing his about-face in life outlook on ‘Son Of The Sea’ when he quips “the panic room is now a nursery.” On ‘Camels’ he doesn’t even really need to beat around the bush: “I'm a man in a peaceful kind of place/ Can't separate the man from his place.”
In this exalted state he’s even unafraid to take on death, which is where Shepherd leads next. ‘Circles’ and ‘When We Let Go’ both meditate on saying goodbye to loved ones, his stoicism sounding all the deeper from the fact that he now has so much to lose. This delving into death is rounded out by a moving duet with his wife on a cover of the Carter Family’s ‘Lonesome Valley’, where they philosophically sing of all their family members making an inevitable voyage through the titular terrain.
Fully aware of the downward turn the arc of the album has taken, Callahan ensures that Shepherd ends on an uptick. ‘Tugboats and Tumbleweeds’ is a simply playful folk tune, describing the push and pull of emotions in a couple, before he re-affirms his dedication to his wife; “you’re my tugboat.” The record ends up with ‘The Beast’, and specifically repetition of the mantra “released beast,” which seems to be his final admission that his former self is placed firmly in the past now.
This consignment of old Bill in the past may not be what long-term listeners want, and there is certainly a lack of drive and drama to the songs on Shepherd that may mean it doesn’t instantly thrill like its predecessors. However, given how happy and loved up Bill Callahan seems now, we cannot begrudge him an album full of slow and melodic ballads, especially as they are written by someone with his incomparable ear. Moreover, if you dedicate yourself to properly listening to Shephered In A Sheepskin Vest you’ll find just as much tumult as there was on any of his previous – it’s just more earnest and intimate this time.
This article was originally published on The 405 - 19th June 2019