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The Lead Review

Lonesome Valley High: Bill Callahan's Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest
David Hering , June 13th, 2019 09:03

It's been a while, but the artist formerly known as Smog is back with a new double album of peculiarly American romanticism, finds David Hering

“I’m crawling through the desert/Without water or love”. So goes ‘The Desert’ by Smog, Bill Callahan’s previous nom de plume, from 1994’s Burning Kingdom. Figurative landscapes and repeated lyrical motifs have been mainstays of the work since his earliest recordings but over time, and particularly since Smog’s final record, 2005’s A River Ain’t Too Much To Love, they have developed into something richer, more contemplative, and more hopeful. Callahan’s voice, which often strained to be heard over those earlier dissonant soundscapes, has deepened into a bass/baritone, while the feedback and spare, chilly synths of songs like ‘The Desert’ have given way to warm nylon strings, flutes and violins.

The landscapes have changed too. While the desert is an analogue of the social isolation depicted in those early Smog songs, over time green shoots have emerged and water has started to flow. The most common motif in Callahan’s post-Smog records is the river, wide and free-flowing. Those Smog mantras, both bleak (‘I’m gonna be drunk, so drunk, at your wedding’) and comic (‘I am Star Wars today’), have slowly metamorphosed into reflections on the universe (‘It’s time to put God away’) and the experience of disappearing inside a landscape or moment (‘Riding for the feeling’).

On this view, it’s appropriate that on Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest, Callahan’s first album in six years – the longest gap between any of his releases – creation is connected with the natural landscape. “It feels good to be writing again/Clear water flows from my pen”, he sings on ‘Writing’. The song is a bare three minutes, which is something of a post-it note compared to the long koans of his recent records, which regularly stretched to six or seven minutes.

It’s this commitment to brevity that marks Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest, which contains more tracks than any release since 1993’s dissonant Sewn to the Sky and is focused, perhaps more than any other of his albums, on the way in which something can be created, or dissolved, in a moment. Callahan has spoken of how the writing and recording of this LP – a period which involved the birth of his son and the death of his mother – required a new approach to time, and the album often seems to have been constructed like a quilt, with small motifs appearing or reappearing, stitched next to one another. Another repeated image – the family crest – invokes a small space in which a selection of carefully chosen domestic objects reflect, in Callahan’s words from the track ‘Black Dog on the Beach’, ‘the discipline of company’.

That dissolution of oneself into nature that has become ever more prominent in Callahan’s work (“I can tell you about the river/or we could just get in” he sings on 2007’s Woke on a Whaleheart) develops strikingly here, and is clearly connected to first-hand experiences of birth and death. On the extraordinary ‘747’, one of the most emotionally direct and beautiful songs Callahan has ever written, a child’s birth moves imperceptibly into the moment of someone’s “leaving”, the experiences connected by “the light you saw”. Characteristically this transcendent moment is followed by another image, earthy and exact: “We are flies on a mule”.

Callahan’s romanticism is a very American kind – drovers, farmers, mountains and valleys – and with its intense focus on objects and their relation to the landscape it can invoke both the cloistered interior sketches of Emily Dickinson and the wide, nostalgic prairies of Willa Cather. But it has always been tempered by a dry, spare humour redolent of the hard-boiled register of Hemingway or James M Cain, after whom Callahan named a song on 2009’s Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle. Occasionally, as here on ‘The Ballad of the Hulk’, he marries the two in a meditation on anger that nevertheless pauses to elbow the listener in the rib (“You know I used to share a tailor/With David Bruce Banner/That’s the Hulk”).

Callahan has played with the limits of language to properly describe an emotional state – on 2009’s ‘Eid Ma Clack Shaw’ the only intelligible response to a traumatic loss is a nonsense rhyme – and on this record the focus on states both before and beyond life emphasises how the processes of having children or seeing people die brings us closer to our animal state. Even the album’s title hints at this; the shepherd is human, but in his coat he partly resembles the animals he tries to herd. There is one cover on this record – a version of The Carter Family’s ‘Lonesome Valley’ – a song which emphasises how we must all make a part of our journey alone, but while the valley is lonesome it is nevertheless still a valley and not a desert, and that lonely journey only accentuates the importance of our moments together. “Well, I never thought I’d make it this far” sings Callahan. It’s our privilege that he has done.

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