Bill Callahan: Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest

Bill Callahan
Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest
(Drag City)
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Drifting.

That’s the feeling you’ll get after letting Bill Callahan’s first album in six years soak in for its hour-long playing time. The once-prolific artist formerly known as Smog (he reverted to his given name around 2007), a fixture on the Drag City label which has released all of his music dating back to 1992’s debut, has gotten married (one song is titled “Watch Me Get Married,” “love changed me” is another lyric) and had a child since his previous set. Both invariably affected both his music and his career arc.

Still, there aren’t any major stylistic leaps after 2013’s Dream River and its dub version follow-up a year later Have Fun With God. Callahan’s deep, dark, laconic talk-sung baritone voice — somewhere between Leonard Cohen, Fred Neil and the late Leon Redbone — remains instantly recognizable as do his alternately descriptive and inscrutable (“The passenger is the driver in ecstasy”) lyrics. 

Callahan takes his time. Nothing is rushed and even though the tempos are varied over the course of the 21 relatively short tunes, the disc feels like one long song sliced into more manageable pieces. Some words rhyme, most don’t and melodies wander without much obvious structure. Sporadically, Callahan throws in some avant-garde playing, maybe just to jar the listener. But generally, his comfy, velvety voice lulls and floats over stripped-down, predominantly acoustic instrumentation, drawing you into his interior spaces. 

This is music to float in. It falls through the cracks between folk, country, jazz and even experimental; chugging and moseying along at its own deliberate pace. He sings the words as if he’s creating, or perhaps altering, them on the spot. Humming, speaking, free-falling into a poetic space that few others inhabit, Callahan’s idiosyncratic approach doesn’t conform to any songwriting model other than his own. 

Even though there is a similarity to the overall vibe, the disc is best absorbed in its entirety; perhaps alone, surely late at night, reading along with a lyric sheet, basking in his lush, down-to-earth vocals and letting it all soak in at a single sitting. At the end of the 20 tracks, you’ll feel both closer to yourself and to Bill Callahan as you drift along with his expansive, occasionally humorous, always provocative and quirky mindset.

Which, it seems, is just the way he wants it.