Bill Callahan may not deal in absolutes, but his music has always had a knack for zooming out. Whether under the Smog moniker or his real name, his music is filled with abstract, arcane explorations on emptiness, humanity and the passing of time, whether he’s coming to terms with losing love on a song like “Rococo Zephyr,” or poring over what freedom really means on a song like “River Guard.”
On his new record, Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest, Callahan’s still searching for profundity, but his music is colored by a newfound joy that instills a sense of warmth in the music. As expansive as it may be, the record feels more like a collage, with songs that read like little snapshots into newfound domestic bliss, a turn that makes this one of his most personal, close records.
Far looser than its predecessors, the sonic template for Shepherd feels much shaggier, often lilting drunkenly through bleary-eyed arrangements. The strings, fingerpicking, and percussion are still present, but they all meld into something that remains pastoral and graceful.
It results in a song like “Young Icarus,” which stirs harmonica, synth and the perpetual beeping of an alarm clock into an extended metaphor on the meandering desire to feel liberated, one of the many marvelous sketches we get on the album.
On “The Ballad of The Hulk,” a nostalgic Callahan peeks into the Bill Bixby show of his youth, while stretching the song into a dramatic exploration of the space he occupies. He’s terrifically self-aware on “Writing,” which explores the peaceful catharsis of making music. On “Son Of The Sea,” he delivers a loving ode to family, joking that “giving birth nearly killed [him].” The gorgeously woozy “Black Dog On The Beach” is a lilting drifter through time, linking Callahan’s dad with the titular pet as chimes twinkle by.
On the closer, “Lonesome Valley,” Callahan peers deep into the placidity of death, waxing poetic on its communal inevitability on the latter as he, his mother, and his sister all march to their fate alone.
Funnily enough, it’s not even the best exploration of death on the record; that would be “Circles,” a cleansing welcome to the great beyond. Carried by soft flutes, it’s placid and swaying, a look into death as this warm embrace. On another Callahan record, it could have been unimaginably bleak. Here, he turns it into one of the most peaceful moments on the record.