Bill Callahan – Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest

The seismic changes that have taken place in Bill Callahan's life over the last six years have beautifully informed his 20 song-strong return

Album Review by Fraser MacIntyre | 14 Jun 2019
  • Bill Callahan – Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest
Album title: Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest
Artist: Bill Callahan
Label: Drag City
Release date: 14 Jun

For two-and-a-half-decades, Bill Callahan was a consistent presence, frequently releasing a record (as Smog in the past and under his given name since 2007) less than two years after its predecessor. Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest is something of an anomaly in his oeuvre: six years have passed since 2013’s Dream River. Over the course of this unprecedented breather, punctuated only by a live EP released by Jack White’s Third Man Records, Callahan married Hanly Banks – director of Apocalypse: A Bill Callahan Tour Film – who gave birth to their son Bass in 2015. Fans used to a more regular Callahan fix will be gratified to hear that the seismic changes in the Austin-based songwriter’s life have beautifully informed his latest offering of 20 short songs. In his own words: 'Sky changed sea / Love changed me'.

That isn’t to say Callahan’s lens has dimmed due to new-found contentment; his focus has merely shifted. Rather than directing us towards the wilderness, he welcomes us into his home – where his heart and attention both rest at present – with songs like Tugboats and Tumbleweeds, in which he offers his son gentle yet sobering words of wisdom: 'Don’t let yourself get so blue / That you make rash decisions for two / Else you’ll harm yourself and another / Who mistook you for a guide / When you’re still a rogue tide'.

In a departure from his last few records, Callahan initially went into the studio and recorded his vocals accompanied only by a solitary acoustic. Further instrumentation was added with care afterwards, but the skeleton of each song can still be discerned, pleasingly, like a pencil sketch beneath watercolours. His wife’s voice accompanies him on Lonesome Valley, previously sung by the likes of Nina Simone and Pete Seeger, which, fittingly, follows Circles and When We Let Go, both of which tenderly address the passing of Callahan’s mother: 'We say goodbye to many friends / Who have no equal / With kisses sweet as hospital grapes'.

Bruce Banner is namechecked in The Ballad of the Hulk, where grand revelations are delivered with a wry smile: 'A master of reiki / Waved his hands over me / And said I eat too much steak / And hold on too long to ancient takes'. Callahan, while characteristically reflective, seems particularly intent on forward motion here, embracing love not as a distraction from reality, but as a communal place of strength and assurance upon which to make sense of it from. Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest reaches out to us from that place, and Callahan looks back 'At the old ways / Over my shoulder' in order to spare his son avoidable pain and confusion.

Callahan has lost none of the conviction with which he once jarringly sang 'Tonight I’m swimming to my favourite island / And I don’t want to see you swimming behind'. His belief that 'True love is not magic / It’s certainty' is stirring and welcoming as love, for him, is not a blindfold. For those often put off by more trivial declarations of love's potency: if Callahan were to don rose-tinted glasses, his stoic gaze would likely burn right through them.

Listen to: Circles, 747, The Beast