Music Reviews
Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest

Bill Callahan Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest

(Drag City) Rating - 9/10

Bill Callahan's latest is an album of contradictions. At twenty songs and exceeding an hour it's his longest work, yet unlike his past output, not a track passes the five-minute mark. It's a sprawling album, both lyrically and in terms of its musical twists and turns, but its execution is spare. The album conveys a deeply personal narrative, yet is mythic, timeless, and cosmic in scope. You might call this a minimalist's epic. Or a quiet manifesto. Come up with a paradox, it probably fits. As if signaling these complexities, Callahan has given the album a title that is knotty with contradiction, irony, and wit: Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest.

At its core, Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest is a concept album that follows two trajectories at once. The first is Callahan's life over the last ten years—he fell in love, got married, had a son, and his mom died. The next, and knitted into this personal narrative, is a cycle of myths and imagery, such as the personification of morning as a godmother, a wolf, who may also be a shepherd, mockingbirds, seagulls, coo-coos, and probably more (Callahan digs birds)—and even the Incredible Hulk is evoked, though I don't think Callahan ever uses the word “incredible.” Instead, Callahan summons Bill Bixby's humble 1970's incarnation, using the green-skinned icon less to evoke strength and rage, and instead as a metaphor about the grind of travel, with clothes falling apart during an endless trek forward. To sum it up, these songs are about our journey through life.

Callahan delivers all of this in a gentle baritone, which has that rare trait of being able to subtly convey emotion. You can actually hear Callahan smile or feel sadness weigh down his brow, and even, I swear to god, hear his eyes close during a melancholy stretch. And the instrumentation, which includes acoustic strums, a slide guitar, a touch of piano, a measure or two of French Horn, and even garden chimes, harmonizes with Callahan's delivery by adding a little punctuation to his delicately emotive phrasing.

As I mentioned, the album follows a narrative path, but so does each song. Rather than adhere to a particular formula, tracks ramble along, following imagery or emotional threads, but almost never adhering to a verse-chorus-verse pattern. You might feel like Callahan's making it all up as he goes along, and we're all getting stoned together and having those kinds of dream-conversations that last all night—but that's just because Callahan's craftspersonship makes these songs seem laid back and easy, when realistically, only a lifetime of wisdom and hard work yields music so engaging and vibrant.

Then there are Callahan's lyrics. He's one of the rare songwriters who incorporates poetic line breaks in his songs by vocalizing pregnant pauses. The effect is those lines develop double and triple meanings: he lets you sit with a few words for a moment, before adding another phrase that changes or enhances the first. Abstractions give way to specifics, and the result is a cascade of feelings, ideas, and images overlapping and enhancing each other in the listener's mind. A simple example from a song about his mother's death (Circles) goes like this:

“Death is beautiful.
We say goodbye to many friends
who have no equal,
with kisses
sweet as
hospital grapes.”

As I reprint those words here, they feel inadequate. Without Callahan's voice, without the background music, and without the scaffolding of the rest of the sprawling album, it's hard to show just how tearjerking that poetry is for the listener. Do yourself a favor: go buy Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest on vinyl. As you listen to this album, you enter a world of beauty and joy, of sorrows and resignation, and finally, in the end, you may even feel wiser for the experience. As Callahan sings on Tugboats and Tumbleweeds, a song he wrote for his son:

“Fools learn from fools,
the wise learn from the wise.”

[Believe the Hype]