Album Review: Bill Callahan – Gold Record

[Drag City; 2020]

Much like his music, Bill Callahan has been taking his time – moseying on, if you will. Having taken six years between 2013’s Dream River and 2019’s Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest, it was something of a surprise when he suddenly announced a return hardly over a year later with Gold Record.

If Shepherd was something of a calm left turn, sprawling and casual where his work is often succinct and deeply-considered, Gold Record is, if not a return to form, a return to normalcy. While many were charmed by Shepherd’s homespun nature, I found it a bit undercooked and overlong, making the stately and compact presentation of his latest work a welcome one.

It’s certainly not without a sense of humor, from Callahan declaring himself, with a wink, both Johnny Cash and Leonard Cohen on opening track “Pigeons”, right on down to the album title’s mockery of sales concerns. Yet, it’s largely in line with late-career highlight Dream River: this is good-willed music, patient, kind, and ultimately, and above all, giving.

This isn’t to say it isn’t anything new within its revered creator’s catalogue. Gold Record feels like an album meant to embrace a world changing around its ageing auteur. When Callahan kindly hums of “The straights, and the gays / And the people who say we don’t use these terms these days,” on “Pigeons” it’s hard not to hear as coming from Callahan himself as much as the story’s wedding chauffeur narrator; a little joke about the progress the artist has seen going on around him over the course of his decades-long career.

As its great artwork implies, Gold Record is very much music for a drive, for a little progress of your own, whether mental or literal. As ever, Callahan has a gift for observation and empathy that few songwriters can match.

“Protest Song” also feels, naturally, built for these times, with Callahan taking on the role of the wary man, past his fighting years, certainly not against what “the kids” are fighting for, but wagging his finger at the danger nonetheless. “The Mackenzies”, although told through a fictional narrator, finds him finding comfort in some of his favorite late period topics: beer, friendship, and family – and perhaps a peaceful death.

Gold Record also takes the time to visit the artist’s past more literally with the inclusion of a reimagined “Let’s Move to the Country,” and, now a father, this time around he fills in the blanks at the end of “let’s start a family / let’s have a baby,” as he seemed reticent to do two decades ago. There’s no real topping the 1999 Smog classic, but Callahan’s warm, wizened acceptance makes for an interesting stand in for the original’s youthful, dreamy optimism.

That’s much of what makes this album a special one: it may not stand at the forefront of its creator’s dauntingly strong body of work, but Gold Record more than earns its place among his never-ending soul searching. It’s impossible not to root for the man, and it’s comforting to know whatever he does – or doesn’t – find, that he seems intent on consistently sharing the results with the rest of us. Not everyone can deliver an album of porch-sitting musings and have it feel so life-affirming.