ALBUM REVIEW: Bill Callahan Settles in on ‘Gold Record’

A gentle warmth enlivens the singer-songwriter’s follow-up to 2019’s ‘Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest’.

On his 1999 song “Let’s Move To The Country,” released under his previous Smog moniker, Bill Callahan was the wandering man who yearned for the simplicity of commitment, but he wasn’t really ready to settle into it. He tried to draw as close as he could to taking the leap — punctuating the song with a suggestion to his lover (“let’s start a… /let’s have a…”) — but he always pulled away at the last moment. Callahan’s earliest music always seemed to yearn for the tranquility of settling down, but it feared the sense of “ordinary” that came along with it and continued searching further.

Two decades later, and a year out from his stunningly sprawling ode to fatherhood, Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest, Bill Callahan finally fills in the blanks with a reworking of “Let’s Move To The Country” for his latest LP, one that finds him discovering a new world in the “ordinary” life he once feared.

A turn away from the grandiosity of its predecessor, Gold Record plays out like an assortment of sketches from a newfound life of domesticity, but what makes it so delightful is how serenely vast these songs still sound. Callahan’s always had a gift for abstraction, and watching him weave dreamlike sequences out of marriage and suburban life is profoundly, pleasantly heartening.

Take, for example, “The Mackenzies,” a song about a man whose neighbors help fix his car and invite him in for a drink. First, you latch on to the concrete detail of Callahan’s world: names like Jack, Brenda and Koji, the music of Mel Tormé, the movies of Kid ‘n Play. But listen a little closer, and you’re cast into a story that’s filled with a transcendental warmth, even as it deals with loss and the ephemeral nature of existence. It’s a simple yet poignant exercise in profundity, finding something new in an experience that seems mundane on the surface.

Gold Record is masterful in these moments, unearthing the humble beauty that permeates a simple life. Callahan begins the album with “Pigeons,” taking the role of an old limo driver as he offers a newlywed couple some advice on marriage, drawing out a sentiment that’s profoundly humanistic in the way it espouses love for the world and the power of community. On the gently lilting “Cowboy,” he turns the idea of watching a western movie on the TV at 2 AM into a drifting meditation on nostalgia, guided by soft guitars and warm horns. With “Another Song,” he folds the act of making music itself into a gentle exploration of love and the passage of time, making for one of the most pleasantly gorgeous songs here.

But it all comes to a head on the closing track, “As I Wander,” one of the most jarringly beautiful songs Callahan has ever written. Where the other songs felt like snapshots with distinct perspectives, “As I Wander” pulls these moments together into a grand rumination on human existence that, in Callahan’s own words, operates “like a big spaghetti junction where all the highways meet up and swirl around.” It is the starkly beautiful culmination of an album filled with simple revelations; the sound of a wandering soul finally content with finding his place in the world.

Score: 📀📀📀📀📀 / 5