Album Reviews

Bill Callahan – Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest – Album Review

Bill Callahan – Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest – Album Review
by Killian Laher

Never has the world needed a new Bill Callahan as much as now.  For this, his first album in almost six years, he has returned with twenty songs on a fifth solo album.  2013’s Dream River was a difficult album in parts, and not an unqualified success, with some songs being slightly overblown, particularly live.  This time he has stripped back to largely his voice and guitar, with embellishments here and there, and God does it work!  Opening track Shepherd’s Welcome opens with a clean, sparse electric guitar and Callahan’s wonderful voice singing “well it’s been such a longtime”.  Indeed it has Bill.  The song ends with him singing “the black dog on the beach”, the title of the next track.  This gives the album a feeling of being a little like one long song (in a good way).  For much of the album, Callahan is in professorial mode, singing with command on Writing, Camels and Angela, the latter featuring clever lines such as “like motel curtains we never really met”.  There are many nods to his marriage and domestic bliss, with the almost chirpy Watch Me Get Married and especially Son of the Sea, where he speak-sings “I got married to my wife, she’s lovely”, and goes on to reference the arrival of his child.  He also gets playful, referencing Hank Williams on What Comes After Certainty, and later on the traditional folk song Lonesome Valley he duets with his wife Hanly Banks.

There are some absolutely tremendous songs here, fit to stand up with anything in Callahan’s back catalogue.  The Ballad of the Hulk feels timeless as he sings “I’ve been looking back at the old ways” over guitar chords which channel Jimmy Webb’s Wichita Lineman, referencing Bill Bixby (who played David Banner in the Incredible Hulk) which amounts to four minutes of downright loveliness.  747 has that sumptuous, blanket of world weariness about it found on his Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle and Apocalypse.  It sounds elegiac, without wallowing in despair, as he sings “we turned darkness into morning”, building to an Astral Weeks-style coda.  On the opposite end of the scale, Released opens on a softly picked guitar and Callahan’s voice creating an atmosphere so quiet and still, you almost hold your breath listening to it.  The album culminates in the graceful closer The Beast, which almost acts as a sort of ‘final blessing’.

The songs here are brittle and brief and as already mentioned it can feel like one (very) long song.  But the material really is of the highest quality.  Listening to it is enough to make any Sunday afternoon absolutely blissful and make everything feel alright in the world.  This album will not be far off the top of many people’s album of the year lists.  To quote Writing, where he sings “it feels good to be writing again” and later “it feels good to be singing again”.  It sure does Bill.

Track List –

1. Shepherd’s Welcome
2. Black Dog On The Beach
3. Angela
4. Ballad of the Hulk
5. Writing
6. Morning Is My Grandmother
7. 747
8. Watch Me Get Married
9. Young Icarus
10. Released
11. What Comes After Certainty
12. Confederate Jasmine
13. Call Me Anything
14. Son of the Sea
15. Camels
16. Circles
17. When We Let Go
18. Lonesome Valley
19. Tugboats and Tumbleweeds
20. The Beast

The Ballad of the Hulk

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