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Bill Callahan: Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest

Bill Callahan: Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest

What sort of Shepherd could coax this mad zoo?

Bill Callahan: Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest

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The Bill Callahan bestiary is a weird one. Eagles in the midst of existential crises, Snow Leopards slinking away from one-night stands, alcoholic Seagulls waltzing into ballrooms. And of course, the Beast, love, roaring like a lion, claws ready for the kill, looming over all of them. What sort of Shepherd could coax this mad zoo?

In the past, Callahan was a passenger, not a herder. Between fourth-wall breaking, dirty jokes and paraphrased zen knowledge, he distanced himself as an observer, not an active participant. But Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest is his first album post-domestic bliss. The former Don Juan who dated and inspired break-up albums from Cat Power and Joanna Newsom is hitched, to filmmaker Hanly Banks, and has a kid.

Dogs and wolfs still prowl. The wolf at the door is sometimes Callahan himself indulging in some carnivorous habits or, more worryingly, a savaging pack of outside influences waiting for the Shepard to let his guard down and wreck up the place. But unlike Thom Yorke’s wolf from Hail to the Thief, these are less dangerous creatures. Callahan’s been through enough hunts to keep them at bay most of the time. He begins Shepherd by recasting Lead Belly’s ode to infidelity “In the Pines,” cutting down the discreet forest to make a domestic nest. Once he used shadows to obscure himself, now he’s making a foyer for us to walk through.

And such radical remodeling requires some reflection. “The Ballad of the Hulk” a spindly, three-part rambler reveals Callahan used to “share a tailor with David Bruce Banner/ (that’s the hulk).” Though Callahan never showed off super-strength, his zigzagging between meditative Americana and horned-up sadness, is about as strong of a dichotomy as Banner and his big, green alter ego. That turmoil of “The Hulk” and the rattling climax of “Released,” one of Callahan’s most political tracks since “America!” reveals a new set of anxieties in domestic life, facing, for the first time, a world not just hostile to him personally, but to his new family-found happiness. But the darkness doesn’t last long. “After this next song/ I’ll be moving on,” he coos.

The rest of  Shepherd strolls along like the cosmic goofiness of Robbie Basho covered by Willie Nelson. The prince of outlaw country even makes an appearance, “I signed Willie’s guitar/ When he wasn’t lookin’,” Callahan snickers, making reference to his new home in Austin. And Texas has rubbed off on him. Shepard is the closest he’ll probably ever get to straightforward country. The summery jaunt “Watch Me Get Married” and “Confederate Jasmine” could have been Red Headed Stranger dropped an octave.

He refers to the birth of his son as “the year the lion left/ the family crest.” Carnivorous instincts going on holiday for more paternal thoughts. Brief moments of worry are punctured by small delights. Images of cribs, the sounds of lullabies and stories of mythical seas to explore in bedtime prose. The dichotomy of this album and Callahan as a whole lies between “Angela” and “Tumbleweeds and Tugboats.” Old muses reappear in the visage of “Angela,” where he admits to an amalgam of old flames “like motel curtains/ We never really met.” “Love goes on/ Like bird song/ As soon as possible/ After the bomb,” he sings over a swinging, dusty background that Morphine would have lounged all over. It’s the one moment Callahan doesn’t feel centered, with a creeping fear of his old mistakes biting at his ear. There’s a beautiful pain for taking responsibility for failures you once distanced yourself from. And he finds an anchor again, singing advice softly to his son on “Tumbleweeds and Tugboats.” “Take a tumbleweed year or two,” he winks before ruffling his kid’s hair and hugging through song. “You’re my tugboat.”

I saw Callahan play a rare show in Austin last year. It was in the newly opened public library, and his son Bass wondered on stage. Banks tried to carry him to the side, but Callahan insisted he stay, legs dangling off the stage, a wry smile growing wider on Bill’s face. It was an accidental moment, not captured directly here, but in spirit. Bass wonders hither and thither through the album, Banks a warm, guiding force following.

So add two more pages to the bestiary: 1) a mostly domesticated beast; 2) the strangest, rarest creature in the Callahan biome: the happily married Shepherd.

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