Bill Callahan – Gold Record – Album Review
Out September 4th
Bill Callahan follows up last year’s outstanding Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest with a follow-up, just over a year later. It’s hard not to read these songs as ‘leftovers’, that didn’t make the cut last year. What’s jarring about this album release is Callahan took the decision to release a song every week over 10 weeks. This, his sixth album under his own name, seems kind of samey at first, all the songs seem to bleed into each other.
Pigeons is an odd opener. Callahan sets himself up with the opening line “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash” telling a strange story about being a limo driver, before finishing with “Sincerely, L.Cohen”. I think he was trying to be clever but it misses the mark and is just strange. That’s not to say it’s not enjoyable, the track is amiable folk, like most of the album, with a few stray horns here and there. The songs have a timeless yet unpredictable feel to them. Another Song has particularly warm instrumentation, while there’s the presence of real heart in 35, when he sings “tired eyes wander to their own side”. No idea what this means but it sounds tremendous. These are complex and knotty songs, fascinating twists and turns, with no repeating portions.
Lyrically Callahan doesn’t disappoint. Protest Song is playful – “step aside son, you’re gonna get hoiked” he sings, with a little understated menace. His sense of humour comes across in The Mackenzies: “I’m the type of man who sees a neighbour outside and stays inside and hides”. Breakfast has intriguing lyrics about how “I drink so that we don’t fight, she don’t drink so that we don’t fight”. He has even included an updated version of the 21-year-old Smog song Let’s Move To The Country. It’s not too dissimilar to the original, though the arrangement is earthier, Bill’s voice has deepened and become more authoritative. This time he fills in the gaps in the original’s lyrics (“let’s start a family, let’s have a baby“). The Calllahan of 21 years ago was not somebody you could imagine enjoying domestic bliss!
There’s not a bad song here. Cowboy has a really old-timey feel, with lazy, loping guitar over mournful horns, conjuring up the image of riding a horse over a prairie. The dry-as-a-desert Ry Cooder is a wry, enjoyable little song.
What sounds like an insubstantial album at first is really worth giving time to. Bill Callahan sounds so at peace on these songs. These songs are far from offcuts, and if it doesn’t quite hit the heights of last year’s Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest, it definitely occupies a position towards the top of Bill Callahan’s impressive catalogue of work.