In the six years since his last album, the supreme ‘Dream River’, the often-inscrutable, almost-always-brilliant Bill Callahan has gone through a lot. In 2014 he got married, then he and his wife had their first child, and then he cared for his mother, who died of cancer two-and-a-half years after her diagnosis. One of America’s modern greats when it comes to songwriting, it’s fair to say he’s had much to take in.
The record with which he documents this succession of life-changing events, ‘Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest’, is a double album released online one side at a time in an attempt to persuade his colossal cult following to consume it slowly and with thought. This, it turns out, is the best way to take in its breathtaking scope. At first it appears rambling, bereft of any clear focus, but pay close attention and you’ll find a lyrical genius at work. Callahan explores birth, death and everything in between, and ties it all together so acutely that what at first seem like mere musings eventually turn into a deep meditation on the nature of existence itself.
The music here certainly drifts, often without much semblance of a verse or chorus. It exists to serve a backing to Callahan’s writing, delivered with the rich, whiskey-warm voice of a man whose craft continues to develop, 16 albums in to his career. He leads the listener on an amazing journey, making use of cosmic, symbolic, mythological and religious images in perfect conjunction with his explorations of blunt everyday reality.
The instrumentals don’t so much provide a framework for Callahan as they follow him along on his other-worldly wandering. Occasionally, as the narrative delves into a particularly dark or emotional furrow, the guitars follow suit, rumbling with evil as he suddenly takes a nosedive into corruption and sex on ‘Released’, or swooning with glistening joy on the relatively direct ‘Watch Me Get Married’.
If there is a criticism to be made of the record, it is that moments like this are a little sparse, and Callahan’s words require the closest of attention for their true brilliance to unfold, but when that attention is given, this is one of 2019’s very best so far.