Willie Reviews Bill Callahan’s “Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest”

Willie Reviews Bill Callahan’s “Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest”


If you like Bill Callahan, then you want to hear a lot of Bill Callahan. His new record, Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest, gives us his every tone and variety of writing. It’s a project to dig into, but a worthy one. RPM’s review:

The image of a shepherd in a sheepskin vest inspires competing backstories. Is this shepherd so devoted to their flock that they decided, wildly, to wear a part of their favorite sheep as a reminder of their duty? Have they donned this disguise not in the hopes of growing closer to the sheep, but in order to hide in plain sight? Or is it not fear on the shepherd’s part, but a token of cruelty to inspire fear in the flock? Bill Callahan’s Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest gives us two different answers to this query. The first, on the album’s cover, shows no vest at all. Instead, a shepherd in overalls seems to grow a sheep’s head. It’s a transformation, then. But wait! The album’s first song, “Shepherd’s Welcome” asks, “Have you ever seen a shepherd afraid to find his sheep?” The song, told partly from the shepherd’s point of view, does what Callahan’s writing does best: it muddies the waters by exhausting critical conjectures and returning all meaning into the hands of the songwriter. The metaphor is intentionally vague, but rich with branching possibilities. Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest is a soothing puzzle of an album, warm with familiarity, but fantastically told. It’s stubbornly insular, bringing in worldly elements only on its own terms. It belongs to Callahan.

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In his songwriting style, his only allegiance is to the phrase. A compelling musical phrase doesn’t always deserve further comment, and he doesn’t mind leaving loose ends. Of course there are verses and choruses, but you’re more likely to find a song that uses only one of these or that has two distinct halves. His songs change and progress naturally, but often out of order and abruptly. The middle section of “Released” shakes off a tender finger-picked intro and introduces a short run of syncopated bells, only to return to the start. But an ABA structure is not revolutionary. The real inventiveness in Callahan’s sense of structure is in the space between songs and their interactions with each other. The album has 20 songs and lasts over an hour, but this double album form does him a great service. There’s room to play and connect the dots between tracks and ideas. The end of “The Ballad of the Hulk” is an unresolved vocal line, completed by the opening of the next song, “Writing.” The choice to overlap implies and creates continuity where there really is none. Callahan loves the lead-in, challenging the holiness and mystery of the song by itself. Additionally, there are nooks and crannies within each song that tie the album together and provide footholds for the exploratory listener. While first listening to the album, I made my song-by-song notes in the margins of a crowded almanac, and I can’t imagine a more fitting parallel for the way songs are slotted in and portions jut out. The place a musical tangent ends is the same place the listener picks it up.

In this thicket, Callahan is apparently still telling stories. They are told in a way as bewildering as the music, but told they are. “Young Icarus” pulls a number of twists at the level of the word. It starts by describing the story of Icarus, but of course as soon as he splashes into the water, “we crawled out” “as obsessed with evolution as ever.” After that whiplash, the setting changes to “a hill behind a gas station in Scranton.” You feel like you missed something, but you didn’t. Callahan plays fast and loose with the way he grounds the narratives in his songs. He runs away from definite details, and his images seem to last only a moment.

Bill Callahan, photo by Oto Gillen

His lyrics also reveal the metafictional elements that make up the album. The songs are hyper aware of themselves, but his musings, stray as they might, aren’t so wacky or aimless that they deflate the song’s conceit. Every word is still contained by his evasive persona. If a song refers to its creator, that’s still not Bill Callahan. Instead, it’s a figure who would talk like this, at end, with always more to say and no clear objective. On “Writing,” when he sings “It’s good to be writing again,” it’s hard to even believe that. Perhaps it’s here that the shepherd is admitting to hiding from his flock. The songs are personal and incredibly intimate in their description of romance and human connection, but they are tempered again and again by a discussion of the writing that went into it. Whoever speaks these lines fears they are a pretender to some degree. “Writing mountain music, whoa,” he sings, as if even this generative process that has done him so much good is just another effort to slink into another persona.

Still, he barrels forward and includes a somehow completely radical element, even for an unconventional songwriter: he uses musical quotation. He uses it sparingly, but effectively. The idea of inserting sections from other works is incredibly uncommon in the singer-songwriter scene. In poetry, it most certainly is, and he uses that as his guide. There are times that he becomes lucid for a moment and sings a line straight out of a Willie Nelson song, melody and all, or asks “where have all the good songs gone?” He gives the same weight to lines of his own invention, borrowed lines, and nonverbals. In a lot of ways, his delivery is like that of a lounge singer: provided words roll of his tongue without a care. The secret is that he’s the one feeding the words to himself. Throughout, Callahan passes secrets back and forth, and if you’re lucky, you might catch one or two.

Score: Hearing an exhilarating story, but upon retelling it realizing that it was just one word repeated at different speeds.