‘The panic room is now a nursery,” sings veteran leftfield tunesmith Bill Callahan on Son of the Sea. It’s just one instance of pregnant understatement on a 20-track album that ends this extraordinary American songwriter’s six years away from the release schedules. Life happened: marriage, a baby son, the death of his mother and now, a purple patch of tunes that combine the allusive rigour of his finest work with a looser, chatty style. “It’s nice to be writing again,” he offers on Writing. The Ballad of the Hulk, a meditation on anger, playfully details how Callahan “shared a tailor” with the superhero.
Since 2009’s Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle, Callahan’s deconstructed Americana has flowed as lyrically as his thoughts. Here, straightforward prettiness often abounds, particularly on the country-leaning tracks, some with the odd female backing coo. It’s sufficient to support the idea of this 16th LP (his first 11 were under the name Smog) as a domestic pastorale. But Callahan’s gnomic half-smile and his ability to pull the rug out under certainties remain. The shepherd’s in a sheepskin waistcoat, after all – capable of betrayal.