Review Summary: It feels good to be writing again...
It may seem, to a music fan with ‘best of the decade’ lists half completed and primed, that this is a strange time to release an attempted epic or epoch defining release. Of course, recording artists themselves are not beholden to such concerns and write according to the seasons of their own creative drives; still, Callahan’s been hibernating most of this decade so it's hardly surprising there’d be a sense of ‘what cave have you been hiding in？’ with him choosing now of all times to deliver an unfashionable and decidedly out of step double album. After so long asleep he faces seeing his magnum ‘Sheepskin’ opus slept on by an errant flock.
Early on he addresses his pangs of comeback doubt but thankfully by song number five, the self explanatory ‘Writing’, he’s decided it’s all worth it and we’re away, riding for the feeling once again. Early listens, even for Bill Callahan aficionados, might prove only sporadically fruitful as it soon becomes evident this material is hell bent on a-wanderin'. This is that rare sort of album where early concerns along the lines of ‘where are the hooks？’ are eventually quelled with the realisation that the entirety of the album is one long meandering series of perfect moments; in essence, every instrumental part, every dead on delivered one liner, is itself an eventual hook. Immediacy be damned.
Beyond this, and what elevates the album even further, is the fact 'Shepherd' works as a consummately crafted song cycle complete with recurring lyrical, musical and thematic motifs. On repeat plays the pacing and thematic groupings start to reveal their logic and Callahan goes a step further, cleverly placing key songs among the track list to help ground the listening experience and keep us on the right path. These longer ‘shepherd' songs all adopt one key theme that then bleeds into the surrounding material; so ‘Black Dog’ tackles legacy and family, for ‘Certainty’ it’s love and faith, ‘Son of the Sea’ parenthood, ‘Tugboats’ passing on wisdom, and finally ‘Beast’ settles on death.
Such major and varied themes unsurprisingly prove fertile ground and so most every song included here contains at least one standout line of lyrics. Callahan has grown into his voice which has had a somewhat fatherly tone for a while but makes all the more sense now - the way he injects humour by setting up an unexpected change to a deadpan tone is supremely Cohen-like. Examples are many, but a couple of favourites are:
‘I try to be a good person…I wonder
…if it’s annoying？’
'Some time alone when you are young is good
High, high time and drunk old time, sober time
I advise all three
…when your brain is at least twenty-three’
Where the lyrics aren’t the prime draw the ‘light touch’ musical backing does some surprising heavy lifting; overall the palette is low key and pastoral, but that still allows for surprising instrumental flourishes. The mood is like a brighter contrast to the one conjured up be Angelo Badalamenti on the soundtrack to David Lynch's Straight Story, it’s tender and timeless, and most of the album feels cast in sunshine. Close my eyes and can I picture Callahan riding a sit on lawn mower through rolling farmland with this album playing over the top？ Uh, yeah.
Still, irrespective of these strengths, for any album of this kind to be considered a classic it will need at least one moment of such sublime resonance it catches you off guard. ‘Shepherd’ delivers on the song that takes up its position in the middle of the track list like a beating heart, ‘What Comes After Certainty’; the song builds a beautiful image of Callahan's wife videoing him in the sea while on honeymoon, only we listeners are privy to hearing how at this same moment he believes he sees the face of God reflected in the water. The way this line is delivered, so unabashed and open hearted, you can’t help but share in his revelation; that he then describes the face as plain to see but ‘hard to read’ is not unexpected, but in reality this later assertion changes little. We both just saw it Bill, we really did.