Premature Evaluation: Bill Callahan Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest
“Yeah, love is the king of the beasts/ And when it gets hungry it must kill to eat,” Bill Callahan intoned on “Eid Ma Clack Shaw,” a song off of his 2009 album Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle. Now a decade old, that song serves as a kind of premonition, a psychic thread connecting Callahan’s songwriting then and now. His new collection, Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest, is unlike any we’ve heard from him. It’s a double album that spans 20 songs and finds Callahan in a transitional phase of his life, navigating the world as a married man and a first-time father. Intimate illustrations of domestic life — humbly rendered on acoustic instruments, a byproduct of having a baby in the house — read like a timeworn, epic testament of the transformative power of love. On “Angela,” a song that is plainly about death, Callahan sings: “Love goes on like a birdsong/ As soon as possible after the bomb.” No longer a force to be feared, it is deliverance in the face of certain doom.
Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest is Callahan’s first album in six years. His most recent, 2013’s Dream River, is a lush but quiet collection of songs that unravel cautiously as the narrator succumbs to the whims of another. At the time Callahan was writing it, he had started a relationship with Hanly Banks, the documentarian who made 2012’s Apocalypse: A Bill Callahan Tour Film. Callahan, who had always been considered a reserved and unknowable figure in indie rock, found himself vulnerable. On “Small Plane,” Callahan likened the nascent relationship to flying through the sky with “no navigation system beyond our eyes.” The heady romance is cloaked in metaphor, and the song is less about falling so much as it is about ceding control. In the years since that song was released, Callahan married Banks and together they are raising a son, as he dutifully explains on “Watch Me Get Married.”
There’s a song about an airplane on Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest, too, but this one is a jumbo jet, built to carry a subsection of humanity. “I woke up on a 747/ Flying through some stock footage of heaven/ This is the light right here,” Callahan sings over a fingerpicked melody and a cymbal shimmy. He goes on to contemplate the cycle of life, wondering if “the light right here” is the same one we see when we are born and when we die. Death’s inevitability lingers on Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest, as it does throughout Callahan’s extensive discography, but on “747” he makes peace with it, marveling at our ability to create meaningful lives in the interim: “We are flies on a mule/ And we’re good at what we do/ We turn darkness into morning/ We turn belief into evening.”
Callahan has always alternated between wiseman and wiseass. His jokes are generally at his own expense, funny little asides that bathe darker musings in whimsy, and though Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest is unmistakably his most earnest album to date, Callahan’s sense of humor remains intact. On “The Ballad Of The Hulk,” he looks back on his younger years that were defined by an inexplicable anger. Though the song is named for a comic book character, it is a revealing insight to Callahan’s inner world. “The master of reiki/ Waved his hands over me/ And said I eat too much steak/ And hold on too long to ancient aches/ And both are so hard/ On my heart,” he sings, his baritone echoed by a thick bassline.
That past is present on this album, particularly on “Young Icarus,” which finds Callahan weaving personal history into Greek mythology, and later, the Bible, over a string arrangement that shifts like a turning tide: “I left Eden with a song up my sleeve/ Well, the past has always lied to me/ The past never gave me anything but the blues.” And though much of this album can be described as overwhelmingly happy for Callahan, his worries cast a long shadow. “Everything is corrupt/ From the shoes on our feet/ To the way we get fucked,” he sings on “Released,” his voice underscored by a tinkering xylophone. Dividing side B from C, it’s the loudest, most menacing song on what is otherwise a relatively placid album.
The latter half of Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest finds Callahan more or less content with newfound domestic bliss, though stability presents its own set of problems, too. On “What Comes After Certainty,” he declares, “True love is not magic/ It’s certainty/ And what comes after certainty?/ A world of mystery.” Here, he is grappling with that old trope that art is born of pain, that it is hard to write songs about being happy and settling down. There are relatively few albums written about post-marital bliss and family life; thematically, we might situate Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest alongside Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour or Paul McCartney’s Ram. Callahan, now 53, is approaching a future that is perhaps less suited to impulsivity, but he recognizes his situation to be a lucky one: “I never thought I’d make it this far/ Little old house, recent-model car/ And I got the woman of my dreams/ And an imitation Eames.” Family doesn’t impede the work, it is this album’s true north. “You’re my tugboat,” Callahan lovingly tells his son on the penultimate track.
The practical anxieties that come with raising a young child are detailed on Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest, in no place more obvious than when Callahan invokes the album’s title. He positions himself as a shepherd on the opening song, beckoning listeners back into his world after years spent apart, but he is also shepherding his young family into the future. On “Son Of The Sea,” Callahan sings: “The house is full of whatever I bring to the table/ If there is no supper, the children look to me.” The responsibility of parenthood occasionally overwhelms, but there is no room for panic, because “the panic room is now a nursery/ And there’s renovators renovating constantly.” The descriptions of home on Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest are carefully placed and diaristic, flashes of vivid color that bring Callahan’s scenes to life. His shepherd persona breaks the fourth wall and steps into the frame of “Confederate Jasmine,” as Callahan tidies up the house while “Grover counts to fifty/ In the other room, sweetly forlorn.” For a frightening moment, our narrator envisions a wolf in the room poised to pounce and steal the flock right out from under him.
The same king of the beasts that Callahan warned us about all those years ago reappears at the close of Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest. In the 10 years that have passed, it has finally been tamed. “Sky changed the sea/ Love changed me/ In that battleground kind of way/ I’d like to say we left the fields smokin’,” Callahan sings, his voice flirtatious and gravelly as he compares his great love affair to a war. “The Beast” is where all of the ideas Callahan juggles throughout the album coalesce: the promise of new life, the specter of death, and the family that provides shelter from an unrelenting, brutal world. “Love is a hill with a view of reality,” Callahan sings. “The gravestones from here look like teeth/ With a beast asleep at our feet.”
Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest is out 6/14 via Drag City.