BILL CALLAHAN Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest gets 8/10

Bill Callahan
Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest
Drag City


After the longest layoff of his career, Bill Callahan returns with a generous clutch of songs parlaying his newfound serenity. That’s right, Bill of the brooding clouds of Smog and later (smog) from the 1990s and 2000s has returned after a hiatus of six years, having settled into a new marriage and family. However, troubadours are a little like photojournalists after all – the worse it is for the subject, the better it is for the photographer and viewer. But now that the darkness has lifted, Callahan digs deep to depict sagacious outlooks on the journey of life from his new contented place in Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest.

The classic Callahan template is still present; simple, traditional-sounding and repetitive instrumentals coupled with his rich baritone voice, delivered with somewhat detached irony. Callahan’s gift as a songwriter is not so much big hooks and killer lines, but rather nuanced reinterpretations of folk songs with lyrics that can slowly twist the knife at just the right time to devastating effect.

Some of the early songs on Shepherd are like this. From Angela: “Like motel curtains, we never really met; and cutting our losses is our best bet.” Ballad of the Hulk likens Callahan’s and Bill Bixby’s potentially violent natures, with Callahan keeping it more on the inside, but wishing “If I just got angry…but I never got angry. Maybe I should have, I could have cleared some things away.”

But most of the songs on Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest sound as though he actually has found true love and it has had a transforming effect on the music. On an unassuming highlight What Comes After Certainty, Callahan sings: “Well, I never thought I’d make it this far. Little old house, recent-model car. And I got the woman of my dreams and an imitation Eames.” Like many of the tracks on the album, Callahan ruminates on both his darker past and also his recent contentment. You can hear a wry knowing confidence in how he sings the lines, rather than a contemptuous, yet restrained, sneer at the cruelness and absurdity of life in Smog songs of the past.

The album packs 20 shorter tracks into the LP, and the instrumentation is decidedly hushed compared to previous releases, almost lullaby-like. There are few tracks with a full band, with the drums often reduced to more percussive effects and other instruments contributing reserved accompaniment throughout. For this reason, the album is a rather soft, mellow affair, where you have to work a little harder to appreciate the compositions and lyrics.

Still, Bill Callahan has always pursued truth and a graceful beauty in his music, a kind of latter day Leonard Cohen, if I may say so. Key to his career has been innovation and bringing a freshness within the medium of indie rock and folk music, steadily evolving his sound and songs in new ways. With Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest he continues to surprise, casting away the dark visions of years past and channelling his considerable song writing gifts through the perspective of love.


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