Album Review: Bill Callahan – Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest
Usually, hearing a fifty-three year old white man prattle on about his worldview for an hour would be be rivalled only by fingernail removal as a method of extreme torture. Yet Bill Callahan’s new double album, Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest, is performed with such sobering intimacy that it’s almost as if the Maryland wordsmith is playing its careworn psalms in your own front room, perched on the edge of the sofa, strumming a battered acoustic while the sky turns from hot blue to inky black and back again.
Of course, much has changed in Callahan’s life during the six long years since he released 2013’s Dream River. The lo-fi rock pioneer married Hanley Banks, a documentary filmmaker, and in 2015, Hanley gave birth to their son, Bass. Then, in 2018, Callahan’s mother died, after a short two year battle with cancer. Shepherd, his sixteenth LP, is a sort of reckoning, a stark meditation on the wages of life and death that somehow manages to feel as warmly offhand as a homespun folktale.
[Shepherd] is a sort of reckoning, a stark meditation on the wages of life and death that somehow manages to feel as Warmly offhand as a homespun folktale
The music is skeletal and mysterious. Opener ‘Shepherd’s Welcome’ is a crumpled polaroid, all mixed down vocals muttering over scuzzy tape crackle. Not for the last time, Callahan is looking back, specifically to his work with Smog, a band whose distorted guitar tunes always sounded as if the instruments were wrapped in loft insulation. Then, he plucks a thick major chord and the song snaps into clean focus. It’s a confident trick that speaks to Callahan’s composing chops while also setting the record’s reflective mood.
Some songs are laconic vignettes that close in on tiny details of domestic gardens and dining rooms; others, such as ‘The Beast’, seem to sum up the entire scope of existence in four taut minutes. As always, Callahan swaps big choruses for rambling passages of observation, anecdote and metaphor. Forerunners like Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s I See a Darkness spring to mind, although the cinematic shifts in imagery also recall the devotional montages of Terrence Malick’s 1998 war film, The Thin Red Line. On the glimmering hymn, ‘747’, Callahan peers down on the earth from an aeroplane window and catches a cathartic glimpse of life itself. He sings “we are flies on a mule / and we are good at what we do / we turn darkness into morning”, and it’s one of those precious feats of direct songwriting that succeeds at saying something profound about humdrum human experience without coming across like a fraudulent slogan ripped from a cologne bottle.
The music is skeletal and mysterious
‘Released’ best evokes the deceptive subtext of the album’s ominous title. As a quiet arrangement blooms into an atonal burst of detuned guitars and jangling chimes, Callahan intones “It’s plain to see / everything is corrupt / from the shoes on our feet / to the way we get f****d”. Biblical invocations of the Four Horsemen and an unnamed Beast pop up on several tracks, seeming to represent both a misleading government and an inner spiritual rot that demands our urgent attention. But curmudgeonly grumpiness isn’t really Callahan’s style; these songs are not the collected gripes of an ageing troubadour. Listen to wistful ballad, ‘Angela’, which ends on Callahan gently asking “you got a garden, don’t you mind a little rain?”, and the soft twangs of his guitar strings almost seem to twinkle with generous wisdom.
Callahan’s most expressive instrument by far is his dipped-in-chocolate baritone, a voice so commanding that you imagine him reciting a flatpack furniture manual with the grizzled magnetism of a high plains drifter
The production favours rough and ready mixes of soft fingerpicking and double bass, which are sometimes dressed up with rootsy touches of organ and harmonica. However, Callahan’s most expressive instrument by far is his dipped-in-chocolate baritone, a voice so commanding that you imagine him reciting a flatpack furniture manual with the grizzled magnetism of a high plains drifter. In fact, that’s almost exactly what he does. In an already much cited line from ‘Son of the Sea’, Callahan muses “the panic room has become a nursery”, and it’s one of the most poignant descriptions of parenthood ever engraved onto wax.
This is a grateful album, and the vocal performances are aglow with love for the unexpected gifts of married life. But domestic comfort hasn’t blunted Callahan’s famously sharp lyrics. Backtrack a few minutes from ‘Son of the Sea’ and there is ‘What Comes After Certainty’, an eloquent slice of American eschatology where Callahan looks in surprise at his “little old house, recent model car” and ponders a future as a father who has found the contented life his earlier, noisier songs kicked up against. Certainly, these are the very particular questions of a middle aged man, but the songwriting has the plainspoken ring of a wanderer learned enough to know that his experiences may not necessarily be yours or mine.
the songwriting has the plainspoken ring of a wanderer learned enough to know that his experiences may not necessarily be yours or mine
Encounters with birth and death are rendered with watchful awe. ‘Circles’, perhaps the album’s most wrenching song, takes place inside Callahan’s mother’s hospital room in the immediate moments after her passing. Unsurprisingly, the resulting elegy is not an anthem to lost parents, nor is it a weeping dirge of multi-tracked violins. Instead, the singer croons “death is beautiful”, stepping to a trembling upper register that snatched my breath away like a gust of salted ocean air.
Malick sought the answers to eternity in the long grass that sprouted from bloodstained soil of a South-Pacific battlefield. Callahan doesn’t travel quite as far from the homestead. He locates cosmic truths in building next door to the hospital, where a well wisher has slipped “out the door/ to flirt with the boys on the library floor”. There is no fear of the end on this record. Why should he be? A beloved relative might pass away but another person will always arrive to introduce us to new ways of creating love. This is a masterful achievement.