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Published on July 19th, 2019 | by voxx

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Bill Callahan – Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest

The wry songsmith gets happy on his 16th effort…

In 2007, after 11 albums in 15 years under the alias Smog, Bill Callahan released one under his own name. It was a significant moment for this inscrutably-voiced enigma, whose often bleak songs spoke of human relationships in the same pitiless vernacular as a noir novelist. Relocating to Texas, his country-folk balladeering brightened, notably on the lush orchestration of 2009’s masterful Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle.

Nonetheless, Callahan’s presence remained ambivalent, riddling through wry, opaque songs, rarely revealing a heart. With Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest, however, Callahan is a new man. “I got married/To my wife/She’s lovely, ” he states in ‘Son Of The Sea’, plainspoken as never before, though the song’s country-jazz languor still harbours some contentious zingers: “And I had a son/Giving birth nearly killed me…” His wife, Hanly Banks Callahan, even sings backing vocals on a stately rendering of the 1920s gospel traditional ‘Lonesome Valley’.

Not that domestic bliss has softened Callahan’s quill. ‘Released’ is a kind of protest anthem (“Any fool can see everything is corrupt”), while ‘Black Dog On The Beach’ hints at dark family secrets. These 20 songs unfold with mostly spartan acoustic guitar and voice arrangements, near-segueing from one to the other. But the cumulative emotional impact is profound, as the man with the drollest deadpan since Leonard Cohen reaches new levels of artistry. “Sometimes I have to wonder on, where have all the good songs gone?”, he winks in ‘Writing’. Perhaps the songs were there all along – they just needed their author to fall in love and come in from the cold.

- By Jake White


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