Monday, June 17, 2019

album review: 'shepherd in a sheepskin vest' by bill callahan

So I'd like to continue off of something I brought up in the Weyes Blood review and it does come with a bit of self-awareness on my part. I opened up that conversation with the discussion surrounding the sudden critical convergence that can happen around indie acts for a single project that can leave just as quickly, but there's another category of acts in an adjacent lane: the indie acts who do get consistent critical acclaim, but never seem to reach the larger conversation. A lot of singer-songwriters and smaller-scale acts wind up in this group, the folks who will reliably make critics' year-end lists, but rarely at the top, and while they will have a persistent cult following, they tend to be artists that even critics forget to revisit - until, out of the blue, they decide on a lark to give the album a spin and are stuck wondering why they don't put it on more often. Which is not quite as bad of a situation as what happens to the one-album-critical-darling, but can be deflating for an artist who would probably wish their name came up in the conversation a bit more.

And for me, I can't think of many acts that fit the bill more than Bill Callahan, previously known as Smog for a string of good-to-spectacular albums throughout the 90s and 2000s - until he switched to using his own name in 2007 and the quality never seemed to stop. And I'll admit I was late to the party - I first heard some of his work with Apocalypse in 2011, but it was Dream River in 2013 that really sealed the deal, a stunningly subtle and potent album that featured one of my favourite songs of that year in 'Summer Painter' and brought a level of cohesion and laconic focus to his brand of writing and production. It's rare to confront a singer-songwriter who can say and imply so much with so few words - in the 2010s the only singer-songwriter who comes close to what Callahan delivers is Courtney Marie Andrews, and even then stylistically they're in different phases of their career and very different lanes, but there is a similar road-weary, textured atmosphere both can command that gives their words so much more. But it's been a while since we've heard from Callahan - he put out a dub album covering Dream River in 2014 and a live album in 2018, but it's been a while since we've gotten new material... and he's got a lot of it, a full double album with a renewed focus on his current domestic life. Now I'll admit I've had mixed results with these sorts of projects, just because of the phase of life I'm in - it was one of the reasons Lori McKenna's The Tree didn't quite hit as strongly for me last year, and there's someone else who deserves to be in this conversation - and twenty songs of Bill Callahan's style and cadence is a lot, but I figured I'd let this sink in, so what did we get out of Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest?

These reviews always feel like the hardest for me, because I've gone over this double album multiple times and like Dream River, I'm generally impressed by its thematic cohesion and how well Bill Callahan plays with sounds and atmosphere off of a template to which you wouldn't really expect this level of complexity. It's a sprawling, shaggy, frequently meandering project that clocks over an hour and will absolutely wind down some lyrical rabbit holes, but I'd argue it still has a genuine emotional core and the highlights are striking - and man, I wish I liked it more. Maybe I was spoiled by Dream River feeling so self-contained and meticulous in its composition, but Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest is the sort of indulgent double album built for his cult following, and by that I mean the group that has been onboard for Smog and the more electronic-tinged side ventures. And yeah, I've always been a little distant to that - not saying I don't like or respect what Callahan is doing here, as from a lyrical standpoint he remains top-notch, but sonically it's more scattered and slapdash, and I'm left with the frustrating feeling that a little tightness might have made this among one of the best of the year.

And yet before we get into the songwriting, I think it's important to establish how Bill Callahan approaches this as a singer - which is to say with a meandering, slightly slipshod delivery where the tightness comes in fits and spurts and there are parts where he outright drops into a conversational cadence. And given the length there have been some who have already drawn comparisons to Mark Kozelek, but Callahan's delivery is more quietly self-assured and melodic - his supple baritone always provides welcome reassurance and warmth that no matter what fidelity comes through - and there are lo-fi passages on this album - that introverted support will always remain in place, with fewer words that seem more carefully chosen but never to the point of feeling overthought or where the song couldn't devolve into free verse...

Which is where the first important slice of irony comes in, because such an approach flies in the face of newfound stability that comes with a wife and family, so while the content might imply peace and contentment, the structure of these songs imply how it could all shudder apart, and the increased length only accentuates the musings of permanence and consistency that flesh out the subtext of this album. Because you can tell this was unexpected for him, especially coming off of the frank acknowledgements of fractured relationship arcs that fleshed out Dream River and especially in continuing the seaman metaphors for lonely, oft-misunderstood but plenty self-absorbed artists meandering onto uncertainty and danger, a life that seemingly every man will idolize... to a point. Because with a newfound, stronger love and a connection to a family, priorities have shifted, and those men who previously only had their own needs and path to trace have it diverted. And I find it fascinating how much Callahan really wants to delve into that larger metaphor, especially for as much as it could paint him in a questionable light - I brought up how the lonely seaman gambling and whiling away his time now becomes more of the fisherman supporting those at shore and we'll come back to this metaphor for the album's end, but the more stark symbolism comes through in the title: a shepherd in a sheepskin vest, a protector who clearly has slain to protect his heart, but protects and shears his flock - and note that only when the vest comes off, children come forth, a vulnerability that staggers him. Hell, he even draws a comparison with himself to the Hulk, but specifically the Bill Bixby version who played Bruce Banner with unflinching, careful gentleness across his wanderings. But I don't want to discount how much he fears for his art, weighing all the more heavy with the obligations to support a family, but also how his muses might be slipping away in the immensity of domestic commitment for his life ahead - it feels good to cut loose on 'Writing', but his tunes become both blessing and curse in those they entice; where his writing pulls him out of Eden on 'Young Icarus' but it's a wandering that's never truly faced the hot light of day, and those metaphors converge on 'Son Of The Sea', where in his spoken interlude he wonders how giving birth nearly killed his artistic spirit, leaving just lullabies behind.

But this is where Callahan tips his hand to the genuine genius in his love story: because for as much as he'll show the smaller details of domestic bustle, he's never forgotten the idea of time and its pressing weight on the psyche, or the dichotomy between hunter and protector as a man's role. It's a little jarring that whenever there is sex referenced on this album like on 'Confederate Jasmine', there is blood, but it's not drawn by a rapacious predator but a shared connection that runs thicker. Or take how he references the 'stock footage of heaven' on '747', a song all about how mundane travel reinforces a loving connection, which leads right into how he is staggered by the immensity of the choice of time, love, and vulnerability on 'Watch Me Get Married'. But it loads the central question of 'What Comes After Certainty', one taken on vacation where Callahan sneaks a signature onto Willie Nelson's guitar having felt true love... but what the hell is next? What the hell is he next, as that question of larger identity is referenced on 'Call Me Anything', as the opening verse shows how he was never everything he said he was, just trying to describe something he could never quite put to words. And then there's how the weight of death casts a longer shadow across 'When We Let Go' and 'Circles', because there is the question how that certainty persists across the unknowable. And that's also one huge reason that I love how this album ends with 'The Beast' - the man must go out into the open water to face an unknowable fate, with death circling around but love leaving him undaunted, to face that great beast. The obvious parallel returns to the central force of ego that is reminiscent of The Old Man And The Sea, but the more obvious literary references is to the short poem by William Butler Yeats called 'The Second Coming', as both are framed with similar apocalyptic scale and weight. And the references hold across the album - the patriarchal lion leaving and returning to the crest as a similar beast is stymied in its challenge in the face of new life, the line 'the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity' might as well parallel every question Callahan asks of himself and his role. But note the subtle inversion: love has changed him, he has embraced vulnerability and a feedback relationship between himself and his partner, with blood and music forming that conduit, and the center holds, and while there is upheaval, it has made him better and led to a moment of triumph in arguably the best closing track of his career!

So alright, brilliant and layered writing, the sort of singer-songwriter intricacy that Callahan damn near makes look easy with his delivery... why am I not calling this a great album again? Well, for as deceptively layered and interwoven as it might seem to be, and for as much its length further emphasizes the immensity of the decisions being made, we're still dealing with a twenty song double-album that more than a few times finds itself sliding towards undercooked moments that only feel peripheral to the larger messages being sold, connected by a single few lines and little else. Now I'll credit Bill Callahan for trying to keep a long album diverse by drawing upon the broader palette of sounds he's used before - he'll shift across lo-fi tones in guitars, percussion, bass, and vocals, and there are even points where he'll tap into slightly firmer backing vocals from his wife Hanly Banks Callahan or even some buzzier synths as accent - but this raises the question of whether individual pieces hold together... and really, it's hit-and-miss. There's a part of me that's convinced that individual cuts like the keening glitch around 'Ballad Of The Hulk', the meandering acoustic interplay of 'What Comes After Certainty' and 'Confederate Jasmine', the gentle coasting of '747' with the sandy percussion making a nice reprise on 'Son Of The Sea', the warm country-esque gentleness of 'Writing', 'Watch Me Get Married' or the piano-accented traditional cover 'Lonesome Valley', or even the more textured percussion bounce off the surprisingly upbeat 'Call Me Anything' can have held this project on their own, with of course the massive shuddering climax on 'The Beast' as the acoustics and yawning bass build off the feedback. But beyond those... it's hard not to feel like if you trim out a few of the less structured acoustic pieces or maybe add a little more foundational groove or a fragment of an actual hook, the project wouldn't drag the way it does. Yeah, it's designed to be contemplative and meditative, to ponder and connect the words being spoken, and it does feel longer than it actually is, but that's more because it flows in fits and spurts, and when the experimentation hits a dry note, you have patches where the momentum just stops and it can be tough to sustain attention, especially as you want to pay attention because the writing's so good!

And that's the tricky thing with this album: as I said at the beginning, it's absolutely best suited to a longtime Bill Callahan fan who has been onboard for his considerable sonic evolution and who can trace the lyrical reference points. If you're looking to jump onboard with this... it can be rewarding, but I also see it as daunting and probably can feel too meandering and thin at spots to be as rewarding as Dream River was, especially given how acoustic and mild-mannered it is. And that's the tricky part for me to evaluate it, because I'd love to call it great... but I am going to err with this one if only because for as many great moments as this has, I'm not it's got enough truly transcendent moments to tip it over. Which means for me, I'm going to give this an extremely strong 7/10 and absolutely a recommendation, but one where you need to be willing to put in the time and effort decoding a project that's more diffuse and scattered than Dream River was. Still, overall it's rewarding and potent, and as I said a few days ago on Twitter, the timing of this album's release so close to Father's Day was inspired, as it is very much a 'dad' album. So yeah, really damn good stuff, definitely check this out!

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