Bill Callahan has always existed in an unassuming world, with fireworks happening just off-screen.
More than two decades into his career, he is a master of throwing the listener for a loop: a king of small grand gestures. As Smog in the 1990s, he drifted from lo-fi musicianship into gentle Americana, but with a misanthropic edge which shot gentle ballads through with shades of black. Whether making a chorus of his own album’s catalogue number, collaborating on an industrial soundtrack with Scott Walker, releasing a dub reggae version of his album or ditching his alias entirely and working under his government name, there has always been more to Callahan than meets the eye. Even his style, creating beautiful folk suites and then half-talking over them with a voice thick as molasses, is brazen. Bill Callahan is just another crooning, bleeding heart Folk Guy… until you listen closely.
The last decade or so has been a gentle trip for Callahan, from the beauteous epics of Apocalypse to the pastoral worship of 2013’s Dream River. But this new album is most akin to 2019’s Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest, his first album in six years and a distinctly domestic change of scene. Familial contentment is the order of the day here too: like ambient music, Callahan drags the listener into his own tempo. His songs are often deeply relaxing, and even the most consequential moment is painted as quaint and small-scale. On “Breakfast” he puts us in his bed and sings “I can hear her out in the kitchen / Making breakfast for me / I'm still in bed and I can see it all in my head”: unassuming, but so vivid you can smell the sheets.
Unlike Shepherd though, which felt like a diary, each of these songs are a vignette from other lives, and Callahan captures people with a level of detail only possible once you’ve gotten out of the way of yourself. Opening song “Pigeons” is sung from the perspective of a limo driver taking a young couple away from their wedding day, and the portrait of a quaint romantic is spotless: “when you are married, you are married to the whole wide world” he sings “the rich, the poor / the sick and the well / the straights and gays / and the people that say / ‘we don't use those terms these days’”.
This is a story-album: each track is its own world and, like any novel, it demands attention. Though the drums sound pristine and the bass is thick and pleasing, the instrumentals are skeletal to say the least. With “35” and “Ry Cooder” there’s barely a tune, and I must confess that I can hardly remember the former as I write these words. But largely, Callahan and his gigantic voice are captivating company. A large part of this is his sharp sense of humour, be it covering his own song on “Let’s Move To The Country” or mocking a young singer’s trite political anthem: “I protest his protest song / I’d vote for Satan / If he said it was wrong” he quips.
A slight edge of white-collar absurdity is present too, such as the too-good-to-spoil “The Mackenzies” which is like a Charlie Kauffman film in miniature, or “Ry Cooder”, where he sings “imagine him laying a part down right here where the song grows thin” but doesn’t actually do it himself. Gold Record feels self-consciously like a classic country album, something The Bellamy Brothers might have put their names to. He even opens the record by saying “good evening, I’m Johnny Cash”. The difference is that Cash liked murderers and thieves, and Callahan likes to stare out the window, watching the world go by. “We will finish our songs another day”- he shrugs on “Another Song” - “and watch the light as it fades away: lonesome, in a pleasant way”.