Bill Callahan - Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest - Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

Bill Callahan - Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest

by Kevin Orton Rating:7 Release Date:2019-06-14
Bill Callahan - Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest
Bill Callahan - Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest

It's been a while since we last heard from Bill Callahan and if he’s the Alt Country Folk answer to Leonard Cohen or Lou Reed, his latest, Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest isn’t going to change that. Its also easy to compare him to Bonnie "Prince" Billy, but I confess I’ve always much preferred Callahan. His work just seems more rooted if you ask me.

Armed with a cheesy cover that looks like something out of a children’s book no child wants to read, Callahan lays out 20 songs for unpopular consumption.  This is music for the shy ones in the back who don’t like loud noises. Laid back, spare melodies that prefer an intimate approach to self-confession and bloodletting. That said, Shepherd is not nearly as ambitious as 2011’s Apocalypse. But never fear, these are still campfire songs and lullabies for the damned.

The meandering naval gazing of ‘Shepherd’s Welcome’ sets the scene. Clearly, this is the type of album you have to be in the mood for. Callahan asks, “Did you have that dream again,” before ending on the haunting image of a black dog on the beach. Which is the title of the very next track. A misty, quiet afternoon of a song musing on the wishes of someone who may no longer be around to bring those wishes to fruition. For all its seeming whimsey, this is a song about death and loss. Musically and lyrically, Callahan makes his camp on the border between sleep and dream.

‘Angela’ is a love ballad that reminds me of something off Tim Buckley’s hazy 1969 album, Blue Afternoon. A woozy, laid back mix of chamber Jazz Folk. Spare, yet lush. “I’m free as a mockingbird singing your last song back to you,” he sings in his deadpan baritone. 

“The panic room is now a nursery,” he discloses on ‘Son of the Sea’. Words that aptly sum up the thesis of this long player. Death and loss are all around but so is new life and new beginnings. If ‘Writing’ is a bit cheesy, ‘Circles’ serves as one of the more profound songs on the album. When he intones, “Death is beautiful,” it’s the polar opposite of perverse, morbid revelry. Its an acceptance of something that must happen in life. By the same token, ‘When We Let Go’ plays at Zen and yet, judging from the regret in Callahan’s voice, it's not so easy to do. A goofy cover of ‘Lonesome Valley’ follows and by comparison, seems a bit of an indulgent lark. 

While the title, ‘Tugboats and Tumbleweeds’ might sound a touch insipid, the song is anything but. Musically, things manage to be remarkably off-kilter yet firmly rooted at the same time. “Fools learn from fools, the wise learn from the wise and always be prepared to revise,” he cautions.

These twenty tracks draw to a close with, ‘The Beast’ a song that manages to combine the elegiac, ominous and wryly humorous. All of which sums up an album that quietly asks for your undivided attention, lest it all slip through your fingers. I’ll admit Shepherd is a touch too long to be all in the same mood, but there’s something to be said for hushed attention to detail. Here Callahan’s songs fit meticulously together like the gears in an old watch. Everything has its place in time if you take the time to pay it mind.    

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