ALBUM REVIEW: Bill Callahan – ‘Gold Record’: Bill pans for nuggets and strikes again

BILL CALLAHAN. Question: can you imagine a world where we don’t have his grace, his eye for the humanity of the everyday, his profound bass-voiced grace, those songwriting abilities.

Scary thought, huh?

There’s been enough to scare us in this ill-starred year of our lord, 2020. So we can be grateful that he’s kinda sprung another album upon us; a year after the last, but quickly announced, laid down and fashioned and readied for our ears by the good people who are Drag City, and with a track a day dropped every Monday throughout the summer to keep us on our toes and tantalised.

This is his seventh studio set since he stepped out from behind his Smog mask with Woke On A Whaleheart back in 2007; it’ll be his 21st overall since his first release under that name, the cassette-only issue Cow, which came out in a run of 20 back in 1989. Has anyone got, seen, dared ask the price for one of those?

The backstory is thus: Bill was getting ready to take Shepherd In a Sheepskin Vest out on the road, worldwide; maybe a year out touring. A year away from home; maybe a year, too, away from recording.

Not content with the implications of this, he delved into his notebooks, pulled out some sketches of songs, even a track from his previous incarnation with the cloudy pollutant epithet; and as he sat and played, more tunes came through.

Exigencies of time and a feeling that maybe these tunes would suit a spontaneous, quick capturing saw him shoot the line on six out of the ten first time. He was joined by Matt Kinsey on guitar, Jaime Zurveza on bass; drums and horns were brought in as needed.

So, Gold Record, what have you for us?

Bill Callahan, photographed by Hanly Banks Callahan

It starts in that beautiful Bill wry melancholy with “Pigeons”. A sad and classic little guitar arpeggio backs and forths before he announces himself: “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash”. He kinda sets the tone for what’s to come here: expect things to be homespun, intimate, maybe a little sad.

For the purposes of “Pigeons”, he’s a limo driver picking up the happily spliced couple. “The pigeons ate the wedding rice … and exploded / Somewhere over San Antone”, he recounts. He looks them up and down, an experienced eye for a pair: “They looked like a match / So I stopped looking for cracks”. One of those brief and lovely interludes in which people never to meet again share deeply happens; the sort you remember, confiding and open. The brass brings a little TexMex sadness, adds a little Wink Martindale pathos.

“Another Song” is a wistful call for the real heartwork of love. “Why dontcha come on home for lunch, and stay? / We’ll start working for love, not pay”, he drawls mellifluously, his voice as rich and seasoned and well-miked as you could ever need. Afternoon delight. Bill uses the technique of sprechgesang, one also employed of late by Mark Kozelek and, I feel, to better effect: that is the song is half-sung, half-spoken, sliding from one to the other, line to line; within lines. It brings wistfulness and intimacy, that beautifully textured voice of his right up beside you.

“35” sees our narrator, our Bill/Not-Bill, casting a slightly sorrowful eye back at a personal relevance that seems to have fallen by the wayside somewhere along the line, through the eye of a bibliophile.  “I can’t see myself in the books I read / These days / Used to be I saw myself / On every single page”: the wiser, but oh, sadly, older narrator of the song was 35 once, abreast of the best of culture, looking for deep signifiers, the everyman in himself. But: oh, he doesn’t see himself there these days. Is he “as much as he was?”. Sparse, close-miked acoustic guitars and hum give a classically Callahan backing. 

“Protest Song” is a thrown-down little fragment, a meta-song; it protests at someone playin’ at singing a protest song on the television – and not really pulling it off. Porchside-at-dusk little blues licks tug the tune drowsily along. “Someone must stop these boys / Messin’ with a man’s toys / Step aside son / You’re gonna hoiked,” he drawls.

For me, “The Mackenzies” is the sad anchor on which the whole album is moored. Like “Pigeons” it takes one of those people-meeting-for-the-first time vignettes, all absolute and touching candour and goodwill. Bill’s car has broken down out front; this causes occasion for him to talk to the friendly neighbour with whom he never has before. The neighbours are the good Samaritans who get the car fixed back up, offer dinner, a bed for the night … the sadness hits when you realise, like Stephen and Mr Bloom in James Joyce’s Ulysses, they’re somehow the father and son each other had never had.

It gets sadder: the room in which Bill reposes was that of the Mackenzies’ son: “There were photos on the wall / Of a boy, maybe 21 or so / Leaning against a brand-new Camaro / I could tell by his eyes that he had died / Some time ago.”

There’s no one quite like him, is there? Bill Callahan can fashion the simultaneous joy and sadness of life, the chance encounter, into cathartic Americana to die for.

“Breakfast” strengthens Bill’s bid to be the Raymond Carver of contemporary American music. “I drink so that we don’t fight / She doesn’t drink, so that we don’t fight” sings our hardscrabble narrator, of a love with maybe a spring or two gone. “Breakfast is my favourite meal of the day,” our narrator concludes. Those little tiny things of a life; the little flotsam of routine on which we cling when all at sea.

It’s a similar tale on the red-eyed (the booze, or tears? Probably both), dusty horseback shuffle of “Cowboy”. “Well I’ve been living like a cowboy / On the late, late movie … All I need is whisky, water, tortillas and maize / Buffalo meat, one time per week”. The brass laments at a little distance from Bill and the guitar, which are right there with you. Our cowboy has found a little station in life, maybe not where he wanted to be, but he’s found some degree of equanimity, maybe even a contentment, down there. 

“As I Wander” sees our part-Bill/maybe-not-always Bill” becoming metafictional again: “I travel, I sing /I notice when people notice things” he comments. The songwriter notes the eye he needs as a songwriter to write the songs he writes. Kinda thang. In the current environment he’s close to having no parallel for bewitching guitars wrapped around tales of the personal as the everyman, the individual as the universal experience. Back in the song, he pushes open layers and parallel universes of metaphor. He’s the link between the death and dreams. He’s the shepherd (in a sheepskin vest); the conductor whom “everyone counts on to get them home / Before the track ends” (the track, of course, here a railway as much as a song). 

Gold Record was put together quickly and a couple of the tunes herein retain that sketchiness – deliberately, you’d wager; for the odd slight moment, there’s tracks that beat with the blood-red heart of the true life lived.

He’s a musician and an observer of the highest aptitude, an eye for experience like a bird of prey. And oh, his voice. Like a fine whisky, he’s laid it down to mature and those rounded, peaty tones warm and intoxicate so. It’d fetch an absolute fortune at some Japanese spirits market.

Drag City observe with acuity: “He’s figured out how to perfectly place his voice in proximity to your ear. It’s based on the distance from your heart to your brain. Simple! Why don’t more people think like this?”

He’s a global treasure; let’s pour a glass and raise it. Your health, Bill. Próst.

Bill Callahan’s Gold Record will be released by Drag City on mp3, FLAC, CD, cassette and LP formats on September 4th. Ladies and gentlemen: place your orders here.

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