Secret Meeting score: 86
by Martin Ramsbottom
“The road is dangerous/And pretty and white…Oh I have learnt when things are beautiful to just keep on” – these lyrics, from Winter Road, closed 2013’s Dream River, perhaps Bill Callahan’s greatest statement to date and can be considered most prescient to the recent biography of the Texan songwriter. On Dream River, the immensity and unpredictability of nature laid bare the humdrum experience of daily existence. The cycle of seasonal change, the turbulence of birth and death, decline and renewal, seems to have prefigured the next stage in Bill’s life. In the intervening six years, he has experienced the passing of his mother, marriage to filmmaker, Hanly Banks, and the birth of their son, Bass. Inevitably, his work-rate halted as these primal human experiences took precedence over his art but, just over half a decade later, Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest is out and it is a kaleidoscopic document on this recent history and a muse on life, death, love and loss.
The most startling aspect of his latest record is that he sounds contented: Bill Callahan sounds happy. No more does the listener find him languidly delivering songs of trees and idylls and no more does the listener find a barricaded Bill delivering acerbic vignettes of misanthropy from behind the ramparts of an obtuse personality. Marriage and fatherhood seem to actually have eased him. On Watch Me Get Married, Bill sings ‘As the lion returned to the family crest/The shepherd took off his sheepskin vest/And the children came pouring and pouring out of my chest,’ the new responsibilities in his life are resonated in these timeless symbols which hold great value not just here, but in all his songwriting. In a recent interview with The Quietus, he explained further: ‘I do think those archetypal, mythical images are kind of the backbone of our existence.’
As ever, Bill juxtaposes his timeless, ornate imagery against the wonderfully workaday – ‘Wakes my wife and makes my wife find a towel/She says, “It’s late, I’m bleeding”/And we’re making love right now,’ he drawls, Cohenesque, on Confederate Jasmine. Sonically, Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest, is not far removed from the late records he released under the Smog moniker, yet every note here is meticulous and carefully crafted. Every miscue feels deliberate. Bill’s accompaniment feels homely too- he is joined again by long time collaborators Matt Kinsey and Brian Beattie, yet there is something new and intriguing to this sound. Beattie’s use of upright bass is the pulsating heartbeat of this record and Gary Newcomb, notable for his previous work on the debut albums of both Shearwater and Okkervil River, provides lap steel. This new arrangement and the imagery employed give these latest batch of songs a folk standard feel, like they have been here forever. Arguably Bill’s greatest songwriting strength is the interchangeability in the way he sees emotions and emotional states. The impermanence of life, the constant flux of birth, life, love and death means his oeuvre is never populated with a calmness or stasis. While he may sing ‘I want to get married to the immensity’ or ‘True love is not magic/it’s certainty’ from What Comes After Certainty he is openly questioning this certainty as the first half of the record closes.
In the chapter Happy Trails of the autobiographical work Things The Grandchildren Should Know, frontman of the Eels, Mark Oliver Everett, wrote starkly about caring for his terminally ill mother in the family home until she passed. Bill and Mark share a curious biographical similarity in that they both had a rootless childhood due to their parents work for both the NSA and CIA respectively; Bill recently moved his mother into his family home where she eventually passed last year. On the second half of Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest the death of his mother and the birth of his son are explored in two separate masterpieces of song. “The house is full of life/Life is change/Even death is not stable,” Bill croons and strums over the lilting lap steel on the achingly beautiful Son of the Sea. There is a momentary calm where instrumentation ceases before the delivery of the heartbreakingly crafted line – ‘The panic room is now a nursery/And there’s renovators renovating constantly’. There is life amidst death and death amidst life; a rich paradox that is uniquely executed by Callahan.
For the song Circles, a tonal shift in Bill’s playing to a funereal pace and his warbling vocal holds a brutal, staggering immediacy – ‘With kisses sweet as hospital grapes/As she slips out of the door’ catches the listener exposed. All the true motifs of his art are here. The circle, be it the wheel or the seasons, natural or contrived, that has populated the imagery of his whole career, returns to pronounce death. Religious symbolism, secularly and enigmatically employed, is here too, ‘And a circle does what a circle does best/With a face as stark as Genesis/And I can’t stop the quest.’ Everything on this record appears deliberate, concentric and consistent. Death is here, but so too are birth and life in genesis.
The puzzle and crux of his latest output appears to be embodied in the Appalachian Lonesome Valley, an old traditional gospel standard popularised by The Carter Family – a song for facing the ultimate challenges of the human condition ultimately alone. Its inclusion may at first appear at odds with a record full of familial joy and life yet its overriding coda as Bill adds more family members to the refrain and brings his wife Hanly in to sing backing vocals for the first time is that, despite meeting both life and death alone, life should be populated with people that become family. Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest is a twenty-song travelogue into the amorphous consciousness of Bill Callahan whose recent history has been a microcosm of the whole tapestry of human experience and what is left is a vast document of great beauty in the pain and pleasure of simply being human.