#ObscureObject by Greg Cwik Music

Bill Callahan | Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest

June 24, 2019

Happiness is becoming of Bill Callahan. Well, maybe not happiness, at least not the rapturous, jump-for-joy kind, but a kind of serene happiness, mellow, content. “Well it’s been such a long time / Why don’t you come on in?” Callahan coos, in that sotto voce voice, world-weary, at the beginning of his new album, Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest, a 63-minute double LP doused in sunlight and the renewing spirit of a man who has, if not found happiness than at least expunged from his body most of the melancholy that occupied his previous albums. Now 53, Callahan has always conflated the lovely with the lonely. Consider 2011’s Apocalypse, which contains the line, “One fine morning / The curtain rose and burned in the morning sun / And the mountains bowed down, like a ballet of the heart / When the earth turns cold, and the earth turns black.” Now compare that crestfallen crooning with a lyric from one of this album’s tracks, “Writing”: “It feels good to be writing again / Clear water flows from my pen / And it sure feels good to be writing again.” Callahan harks back to Wordsworth, Whitman, Coleridge; throughout the album, he uses nature, the bucolic and idyllic, to conjure ruminative, beautiful images. He’s cut down the pine to make a new floor; a black dog follows him and they chase seagulls; storms and flowers proliferate; and young Icarus flies over a cold, cold sea, and wanders and wanders…

A 63-minute double LP doused in sunlight and the renewing spirit of a man who has, if not found happiness than at least expunged from his body most of the melancholy that occupied his previous albums.

Shepherd in Sheepskin Vest is Callahan’s warmest, most affable album to date, his strumming loose and leisurely, his lyrics flowing like runnels down a hill. The images are exact but not rigorous, his word choices precise without being pretentious. “What Comes After Certainty” features two guitars that don’t initially seem simpatico, messy little solos on the periphery of the rhythm, but their looseness, their borderline insouciance, soon becomes endearing, as the players noodle together like old friends who’ve spent a brief time apart. Callahan is coming to terms with loneliness, with isolation and the acquiescence of five decades of introspection. A sense of relief lingers throughout Shepherd in Sheepskin Vest — this is a man who’s gone through AA, who’s been the shepherd on the hillside, seen enough wolves. “You can call me anything just as long as I can sing / I sing for answers, I sing for good listeners.” He’s experiencing changes, coming to terms with a life in perpetual flux: “Sky changed the sea / Love changed me / In that battle cloud way / I’d like to say we left the field smoking / Smoking, smoking.” Love, he ultimately decides, is “a hill with a view of reality.” It is love that releases the beast.

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