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Bill Callahan: Gold Record

Bill Callahan has been weird and charming, direct and oblique. He’s rarely been uninteresting, whether grouchily exploring the darker sides of people or simply settling into domestic life. Last year’s Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest ostensibly brought us the most immediate and personal picture of Callahan we’ve seen yet. His return to music pulled his domestic life into his art, offering us atypical peace. Following up that album surprisingly quickly with Gold Record suggests that he has more to mine in that vein. Sticking to his serious honesty, he begins the album with his distinct baritone and a famous introduction: “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.”

That moment, from “Pigeons” plays for laughs, but it informs its listeners in a few ways. Callahan, first, isn’t Cash. Their voices have a superficial resemblance and write memorable, insightful songs, but the comparisons don’t go much further. Callahan ending the song with “Sincerely, L. Cohen” does similar but less extreme and funny work. But if Callahan isn’t Johnny Cash or Leonard Cohen, he isn’t exactly himself here, and that opening frames the album as what it is: a set of short stories told mostly by stray narrators.

Callahan can go deep as an unreliable narrator, but here he keeps his singers relatively trustworthy, whether the marriage-advice-giving taxi driver of that first cut or the hermetic neighbor drawn into a surprising connection on “The Mackenzies.” That cut’s narrative economy and unexpected developments situates him closer to Raymond Carver than to typical pop music. The singer – who typically “sees a neighbor outside/ And stays inside and hides” – finds himself opening up to an older couple struggling with the loss of their adult son. The climax comes with a nap, a twist in understanding with a reversal in comforting, as the couple fulfills a silent wish from the narrator. Callahan executes the piece precisely, keeping a bit of playfulness in his lyrics while telling a warm and moving story.

With that sort of lyrical approach, it makes sense that Callahan keeps the music simple and uncluttered. He mostly avoids choruses, relying on a stream of varied verses to move these vignettes ahead. Most of these cuts feature voice and acoustic guitar, with the other instruments (often other guitars but sometimes horns) filling in the sound. “Cowboy” gets some whistling in case the groove doesn’t lope Westernly enough, even as Callahan situates his singer in an inert spot at home (the mythic range sonically disappearing as we stare at the tv). That location, alone at night in a comfortable spot, though with nice speakers and better attention might be the ideal setting for listening to these tracks, soft and steady, with an easy smartness.

That the pieces fit together so well only surprises in light of the album’s backstory, in which Callahan revisited older, unfinished songs and then found inspiration for a few new ones. Knock Knock‘s “Let’s Move to the Country” gets a post-marriage-and-baby update. “Another Song” summarizes the public positioning of Callahan’s current work. In that track, a songwriter struggling with writer’s block takes a break to be with his romantic partner. “We’ll start working for love, not pay,” he sings. The writer notices enough in their evening together to create new art, suggesting that working for love has its practical rewards. More than that, it suggests that life and art can be an integrated experience. These tracks aren’t about Callahan, but they’re a reminder of the joys of stories integrated into our day. Callahan provides 10 narrations here that mostly look at other people, but they should help both him and us look inward, too.

Callahan provides 10 narrations here that mostly look at other people, but they should help both him and us look inward, too.
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