Bill Callahan – ‘Gold Record’ review: homespun charm from a great American songwriter

More a scrapbook of sounds than a cohesive collection, the singer-songwriter's new album nonetheless sees him reach higher astral spheres than before

Released barely a year after the enormous, six-years-in-the-making ‘Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest’, a double-album that meditated on birth, life and death, Bill Callahan’s seventh outing (under his own name) ‘Gold Record’ finds him ploughing firmly against the grain. As the wider world collapses all around him, the prolific singer-songwriter has released the warmest, wittiest and most comforting work of his career.

Where ‘Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest’ consisted of one grand, flowing meditation, ‘Gold Record’ was written largely on the road and has been released one song per week over the last 10 Mondays; it’s essentially a loose collection of singles. Many of the track’s titles – ‘Protest Song’, ‘Another Song’ – feel like drafts. ‘Let’s Move To The Country’ sees Callahan rework a song he under his Smog moniker in 1999.

The instrumentals are often dazed and dreamy, more often than not based around simple and bright acoustic guitar lines, only ever gently augmented by his band. On the insert image of the physical edition of the record, there’s a picture of mud-stained vinyl that’s more brown than it is gold, its title written in a handwritten scrawl.

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This album is intentionally casual, at points even scrappy, but it’s testament to Callahan’s brilliance as a songwriter that he can use that scrappiness as the basis of something truly beautiful. He blankets the entire record in a homespun charm – on opener ‘Pigeons’ he introduces himself as “Johnny Cash” and signs off as “L. Cohen”; later he adorns ‘Cowboy’ with a lolloping saloon riff and whistles.

He writes of quaint suburban scenes – of the clock striking “beer 30″, a housewife bringing in drinks on a tray and insisting he stays for dinner, an old man calling his buddy to fix a broken-down car. Never has Bill Callahan’s America sounded so quaint.

Within this low-key palette, however, Callahan at times reaches the cosmic. ‘Pigeons’ might ostensibly be about birds swallowing the rice thrown on a married couple and exploding as a result, but from this surreal vignette Callahan extracts a serene consideration of love, life and death. Among the wandering guitar riffs are gorgeous little inflections of synth, trumpet or drums, gently elevating Callahan’s Earthly scenes towards the realm of the transcendent.

The closer, ‘As I Wander’, contains some of his most affecting lyrics to date: “It’s times like these that the forces at work start considering me / As the link between death and dreams.” Even at his most casual, Bill Callahan remains a cut above the rest.

Bill Callahan

Release date: September 4

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Record label: Drag City

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