In a sentence:
A clearing house for old ideas, Bill Callahan’s ‘Gold Record’ gives off a cosy and instantly familiar feeling – and that’s a very good thing.
words that Bill Callahan sings on his latest album Gold Record,
in that sturdy yet silky baritone that’s long since become such a reliable
marker of quality in his long career, are “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash”,
heralding the strikingly beautiful ‘Pigeons’, which is then
bookended by the closing lyric “sincerely, L. Cohen”. They are flickers
of wicked humour and ironic self-deprecation amid a gorgeous, homely acoustic
track delicately embellished with brass and stray chimes of other guitars, it
was the first of a weekly series of newly released songs from Callahan that have
come to provide a calming soundtrack to the nervous loosening of lockdown.
Although they’re clearly of a piece with each other, the nature of their rollout makes Gold Record feel like an anthological collection, a book of sketches and photographs where his previous solo and Smog albums were detailed paintings. It’s also in some ways a direct continuation of the themes of maturity, domesticity and responsibility that Callahan, who had recently married and become a first-time father, explored in 2019’s Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest, a gently revelatory record in an already long and celebrated career arc.
mental space is where many of these songs dwell – a previously tortured soul
allowing himself to come to terms with contentedness and stability. ‘35’ is
about being less confident in your opinions as you get older and the strong-headedness
of youth recedes (“I can’t see myself in the books I read these days”). On
‘Pigeons’, he offers advice to a couple of newlyweds (“When you are dating,
you only see each other / And the rest of us can go to hell / But when you are
married, you are married to the whole wide world”). Seen in the context of
those Cohen and Cash references, they’re an insight into an artist keenly aware
of mortality, and they take on a hushed profundity when delivered in songs that
are almost universally underpinned by a sole acoustic guitar.
moments of mischief, however. ‘Protest Song’, for instance, is a noirish and
funny skewering of modern artists’ hamfisted attempts at political sloganeering.
Tracks like ‘The Mackenzies’ bear a passing resemblance to Mark Kozelek’s incredibly
literal Sun Kil Moon lyrics, but Callahan is much more subtle artist, infusing
biographical details with a dream-like quality that elevates them above Kozelek’s
often two-dimensional style. ‘As I Wander’ tries to pull together all the themes
of this record – and those of Shepherd… – into one travelogue-esque
piece. Most poignant of all is a rough-hewn update of ‘Let’s Move To The
Country’, a track from Smog’s 1999 album Knock Knock. The finishing-off
of the original’s ambiguous “let’s have a…” line with “…a baby / or
maybe two” gives a wonderful feeling of Callahan’s life having come full
circle, from carefree curmudgeon to family man.
waited over half a decade for new Bill Callahan music the last time around, it’s
a delight to hear more barely a year later, particularly a record as instantly
cosy and familiar as Gold Record. Right back to his Smog days, he’s had
a deep and affecting voice that was always going to suit him more and more as
he got older and more wizened. Here’s to many, many more albums ahead. (8/10)
Listen to Gold Record by Bill Callahan here via Spotify, and tell us what you think below!
Tags: album, Bill Callahan, Gold Record, review
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