For someone so effortlessly tied to minimalism, and for being so unassuming, Bill Callahan sure knows how to spoil his fans. By 2014, his remarkable career consisted of sixteen studio albums, released in his name or under the much-adored moniker Smog. The elusive tentative storyteller opted to shy away from his already-dimmed limelight in the mid-2010s. Last year the lo-fi champion reemerged on a larger scale – he had made scattered live appearances during his break – with the release of the overwhelming yet irresistible ‘Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest’. Twenty songs, over an hour, it was a mammoth return for a character familiar with the art of low-key. Worth the five year wait? Absolutely. Oh well, fans thought. Here’s to the next five.
However, here we are. Less than fifteen months have passed and Callahan, still reeling off the back of his formal return, has conjured up truly special. Something true to Callahan in spirit and in form. ‘Gold Record’ is precisely what Bill Callahan has thrived in over the last thirty years. With forty minutes encompassing the ten songs, it is at once more digestible and more scattered than anything he has released.
As he prepared to settle down for a lengthy worldwide tour to support ‘Shepherd…’, Callahan decided to dust off some old ideas and rework them while on the road. Spawned out of the prospect of loneliness, perhaps, if not boredom, these lost thoughts that almost wandered into obscurity, have emerged. Each one is its own; a story deserved of attention. You wouldn’t instinctively think these are discarded ideas – they are way too strong for that. But alas, they are. As is Callahan’s mind.
It is where we find Bill Callahan now. A man at peace with life, or at least equipped to make some sense of the chaos. Where his Smog days found him romanticising death, if not eroticising it, now Callahan finds himself glorifying life. ‘The Mackenzies’, a blissful and loving breeze sees the singer finding himself abnormally befriending his neighbours. “See I’m the type of guy who sees a neighbour outside, And stays inside and hides”, he resigns. The pause before the last clause seemingly lasts for hours. He knows how he has to change. The further the song travels, the more he learns of his neighbours. His analysis of their house (“I could tell by his eyes that he had died some time ago and his room kept alive”) is vivid, immersive. It is a window, a delicately constructed peak into a brief encounter between strangers. Callahan is one of the few who can make a story as seemingly unimportant and this and transform it into life.
The pairing of ‘35’ and ‘Protest Song’ captures Bill for who he is. The former is beautifully introspective; Callahan is aware of his slip on the grasp of modernity but is working on it. Opening with “I can’t see myself in the books I read these days, Used to be I saw myself on every single page”, he quietly longs for youth. It is hard to think of a contemporary who could summarise the lost days with lines like, “The moon can make a false love feel true, It can make me still wanting you, Oh, the moon.” What a gift.
Where ‘Protest Song’ is a humorously bitter song. Callahan, with guitar in hand, is the song’s focus. Ironically one of the only songs here with a somewhat conventional song structure, he critiques the new wave of kids and their protest songs. “I protest his protest song, I’d vote for Satan if he said it was wrong”, he grumbles. Snarky or satirical, Callahan is typically murky. A little underwritten, a little sour, but a lot to admire.
If he hadn’t made it clear across his sprawling and wondrous record last year, Bill Callahan loves love. His marriage, his family; the Texan singer has found something he is happy to express love over. ‘Breakfast’ is a focused and descriptive look into his relationship with his wife. “And she’s been leaving like a sun tan, ever since the sunset began”, he claims. As the song reaches its delicate and sweet conclusion, he fades out with a loving line: “And breakfast is my favourite meal of the day”, for it reminds him every morning who he is waking up to.
‘Gold Record’’s opener, ‘Pigeons’, only further enforces the narrative. The album opens at a wedding; a wedding Callahan doesn’t want to ruin with his trademark cynicism. The five and a half minute introduction is grand and gentle, the sort of folk-inspired lullaby that Callahan has perfected. Yet again, his lyricism, his poetry shines. “When you are dating you only see each other, And the rest of us can go to hell, But when you are married, you are married to the whole wide world.” Inspiring. The gorgeous arrangement, unobtrusive, allows Callahan to be the focus.
The irony of the album’s title is not lost. Bill Callahan, even in his Smog heydays, has never been known for his commercial success. He has a strong fanbase, adored by those familiar with his work, but Ed Sheeran he is not. This record is certainly more digestible than his previous effort at ten songs. Will it do enough to grant him a plaque he deserves? Perhaps not.
That is not to say he doesn’t give up entirely. Callahan reworks his much-loved, second-most popular song (according to Spotify), ‘Let’s Move to the Country’. This stripped back arrangement highlights the strength of the song’s melody. It feels more intimate, more confident, if a little simpler. While the tone of the original is unmatched, this is a respectable reworking. He even cannot resist expressing how complete he is at the moment; finishing off the famously blank lyrics of the third verse, Callahan exclaims: “Let’s start a family, let’s have a baby.”
Sometimes it does not take much to realise Callahan’s abundance in talent. The album closer calmly offers another reminder of why, thirty years on, Bill Callahan is an unmatched artist. Just under four minutes, it is upbeat yet fragile. As he lends his wisdom and view with mesmerising insights like “The babies make me feel at ease with eyes like honey-drunk bees”, the song concludes with a fairly rousing (all things considered) horn section, elevating the album’s climax to a gorgeous outing. It is pleasant, divine.
‘Gold Record’ is one of those records that can inspire. There is nothing much to it other than acute meticulous gentile instrumentation, captivating lyrics and a narration that hooks you. There are lower stakes here; just the one album, and only fifteen months after his last. Callahan didn’t need to do much. Instead he did what he does, effortlessly. He is on a hot streak that could see his career reach new heights. This chapter in Bill Callahan’s career is one worth diving into, over and over again.
‘Gold Record‘ by Bill Callahan is out now via Drag City. PHOTO CREDIT Hanly Banks-Callahan