Since Bill Callahan left us with Dream River in 2014 the world kept turning: climate changed, wars were fought and Brangelina separated. The world of Bill Callahan was also rocked: he got married, had his first child and had to say goodbye to his mother who died of cancer. So if you haven’t noticed, a lot can happen in 5 years.
Obviously Callahan, now 53 years old, had himself a long thought about all of these life changing events and moreover asked himself the question what he values in life. Much of the thinking he did made it to Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest. Instead of being downright downhearted after his mother died he announced his return rather cheerful via Twitter in December last year. In his first tweet ever he said: “Alright, people! Let’s DO this!!! I am PUMPED for 2019! Woohooooo!” Sarcastically adding: “I’m thinking about quitting Twitter”, a few minutes later. It got us pumped anyway so let’s take a long hard listen to Shepherd which is the sixth album he released after stepping away from the infamous Smog moniker.
Callahan, who is essentially known for slow-paced take on things also pre-released Shepherd in that manner. Piece by piece the album was made available on streaming services. With each part standing for a specific part in the chronicle of life.
The start is about the unconscious inner world in which he reflects on a dream about a shepherd who is afraid the find his sheep which, as dreams sometimes tend to unfold, becomes a narrative about a black dog on the beach. Musically the arrangements are precies, nicely detailed but are also accompanied by traditional instruments like the silently whining pedal steel guitar on the background of ‘Black Dog on the Beach’. The introspective is further deepened in ‘The Ballad of the Hulk’ He sings: “I’ve been looking back. […] Over my shoulder. Well, I’m just talking about the old days”. At first he tells us he once shared a trailer with Bruce Banner, “That’s the Hulk”, and wonders if he made mistakes in life, why he didn’t let his anger go more often, if his diet needs changing and to close of if all of, this song is getting annoying to listen to. Within a song or four Bill Callahan climbs up to do what he does best: just mature man who is lyrically straying around. Hereafter Shepherd steps out of Callahan’s dreamy inner world.
On ‘Morning is My Godmother’ Callahan slowly wakes up. With some breezy guitar play the songs feels like a rising dawn when your still in a warm bed. This is followed by ‘747’ on which he finally reaches full consciousness. Callahan, high up in the sky on a 747, metaphors about being the clouds when his son was born but simultaneously sees him growing up. Happiness and the realism of letting go hand in hand on ‘747’. The other songs at this part of the record are about dealing with real world issues and about how lonely living the present can be. On ‘Young Icarus’ he sings: “Without a past there’d be no one here but us. Lonely as Adam and Eve. So I left Eden with a song up my sleeve”. Eventually he ends up in the maze of life and asks himself what true love is. With two inter-twirling acoustic guitars around him he rhetorically answers: “…certainty and what comes after certainty. A world of mystery”.
Other simple things in life are also met without protest. On ‘Call Me Anything’ he simply recalls riding his bike. Of course in a poetic way: “I am a seagull made of man and metal”. These sort of calm and strong autobiographical feelings stay present until ‘Camels’ in which death becomes part of the vocabulary. From here the record slowly zooms out. ‘Circles’ and ‘When We Let Go’ are strongly connected to the passing of his mother: “I made a circle, I guess. When I folded her hands across her chest. She made a circle, I guess. And a circle does what a circle does best“. At long last the album doesn’t end in a depressing manner. Callahan keep on zooming out and tries to end high-spirited by whistling on ‘Lonesome Valley‘. ´The Beast’ is the abums true end. Here Callahan seems the float over the earth’s surface: “Love is a hill with a view of reality […] And the gravestones from here look like teeth. With a beast asleep at our feet”.
As a verdict I would say Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest is less focused than its predecessor Dream River. Callahan also takes less time to sing a song. Slowly-unfolding songs of 5 or 6 minutes where the Smog/Bill Callahan standard for as far as I can remember. Yet, now he brings 20 shorter songs about love, loss, fear, birth and death. Most of those blend into each other so Shepherd isn’t a record to put on and off and on again. You have to commit to it for the full hour plus a few minutes, taking it all in at once to really appreciate it.
Ultimately, Bill Callahan not only made a circle when he got married, his son was born and mother died but also made one with this record and gave it to us.
Label: Drag City, 2019
- Shepherd’s Welcome (2:22)
- Black Dog on the Beach (2:30)
- Angela (2:47)
- The Ballad of the Hulk (4:04)
- Writing (3:06)
- Morning Is My Godmother (2:10)
- 747 (3:26)
- Watch Me Get Married (3:10)
- Young Icarus (2:48)
- Released (2:22)
- What Comes After Certainty (3:42)
- Confederate Jasmine (3:40)
- Call Me Anything (2:26)
- Son of the Sea (4:13)
- Camels (2:59)
- Circles (2:28)
- When We Let Go (2:17)
- Lonesome Valley (4:16)
- Tugboats and Tumbleweeds (4:12)
- The Beast (4:37)
Review by Wander Meulemans // 240619