Bill Callahan, the cult US singer-songwriter, isn’t fond of weddings. Even when it’s his wife’s friends who are getting hitched, he feels a disconnect and just gets drunk and eats the free food.
“I started thinking [that] the angel of the wedding ceremony is the limo driver,” he noted in a recent livestreamed radio session with the US station KEXP, in advance of his new album, Gold Record, out this week. The limo driver “whisks you away” from “this purgatory” and into “a new life”. “That’s a beautiful position to be in – the bearer, the one who bears you away like that.”
The first song on this still undersung artist’s latest set tells of such an angel. Like many of Callahan’s best songs – his enviable body of work spans 30 years and only grows in nuance – Pigeons is a short story, one of nine here told in impressionistic snatches.
“The pigeons ate the wedding rice and exploded somewhere over San Anton… io,” is an opening that grabs the listener’s attention. Later, though, the groom will ask for advice. The limo driver’s reply crystallises the thrust of Callahan’s work of the last few years.
“When you are dating, you only see each other, and the rest of us can go to hell,” Callahan’s chauffeur muses. “But when you are married, you are married to the whole wide world, the rich, the poor, the sick and the well.”
Callahan might dislike weddings, but here and elsewhere in his recent work the vow “I do” implies a willingness to be plugged into the wider human experience, a major change for a songwriter known previously for his spare, often misanthropic poetry. His last album, the universally acclaimed Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest (2019), found solace in his own marriage, home and fatherhood. He captured the sea change with bone-dry understatement: “the panic room is now a nursery”. Gold Record is Shepherd’s… equal, at least. And although many of the songs date from earlier in Callahan’s writing, the thaw in his cool is irreversible.
The first 20-odd years of Callahan’s artistic life were spent under the name Smog. Peripatetic, as was the way of musicians once, Callahan was as hard to pin down as his pseudonym. Introversion was a given. Bathysphere, from 1995, found his child protagonist dreaming of solitude undersea. “If the water should cut my line, set me free,” it went, a sort of beatific death wish.
He tended towards black humour (Dress Sexy at My Funeral). Equating characters with their author is reductive, but the devastatingly bleak I Break Horses could easily be read as a series of giant, flaming red flags to future girlfriends. Past partners have included Cat Power and Joanna Newsom, whose song Does Not Suffice could be read as a lacerating riposte to Callahan’s song All Your Women Things.
Gradually, Callahan lost the need for the pen name. Indie rock stopped being his genre, if ever it was. A kind of spare, cosmic Americana has replaced it, in which the understated interplay of Callahan’s guitar and his bandmates’ instruments is just as exquisite as the literary or filmic nature of his songs.
Marriage – to Hanly Banks, a film-maker who made a documentary about him – and fatherhood found Callahan embracing openness, extending the already expansive role of nature in his work, adding ever more magic realist dream realms. Eagles joined the stable of recurring Callahan motifs such as horses, rivers and boats. If Callahan was a great artist before, he became an even better one, with more finely weighted language and imagery, more sonorous and unconventional guitar work.
Shepherd… was palpably a personal record. Conceived as a compilation of standalone singles (one has been released every week for the past few weeks), Gold Record turns its gaze outwards to other characters. Callahan mentions Short Cuts, the film of a series of Raymond Carver short stories, as a reference point.
This is a record in which older male figures crop up, often elliptically. “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash,” Callahan mugs. The song Pigeons ends with “Sincerely, L Cohen”, Leonard Cohen’s sign-off from Famous Blue Raincoat. An entire song is dedicated to Ry Cooder, “so laid-back and exact in his attack”. And while these wry salutes to the greats provide context and laughs, this fine album re-emphasises that it’s high time that Callahan was feted as one of the pantheon.
On The Mackenzies, Callahan’s protagonist accepts an offer of help from his neighbour, whom he has never met before, of course. Invited in, he ends up taking the place of the man’s dead son at the table, even napping in his bed. “I wished that Jack would call me ‘son’ again,” Callahan offers.
The neighbours need someone to care for. The protagonist is learning how to accept the kindness he might once have scorned. Gold Record marks another stage in one of the most intriguing about-turns in recent American music. The curmudgeon of Callahan’s early records might now meet humanity with a wry chuckle and an observational benevolence bordering on empathy. Fellow-feeling might trump disconnection. Or as Callahan notes here on Cowboy: “It’s all one river.”
Gold Record is released on 4 September