Formerly known as Smog, Bill Callahan established a reputation as an enigmatic brooding singer-songwriter with a penchant for life’s seemingly mundane moments. He has released seven (including Gold Record) albums under his own name since retiring the Smog moniker. Under his given name, Callahan hand has continued to explore similar corners of life but with increasing accessible musicality. Callahan’s latest, Gold Record, comes on the heels of 2019’s Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest. Both records attempted an unusual record release and single roll-out schedule in hopes of breaking the code on how best to engage fans in a new era of ubiquitous streaming and disposable art. On Shepherd, that looked like a four sides of a record rolled out as almost self-contained EPs. On Gold, it took the form of a track released each week for the ten weeks leading up to the album release. Out on Drag City on September 4th, the wait for the complete Gold Record is almost over. And, although it was released as a series of singles, these songs hold together as a collection that should be enjoyed as such in its entirety.
From the first tones of “Pigeons” on Callahan’s acoustic guitar, the mood is set for a dour record that will play with American icons and established myths surrounding the songwriter as Callahan lyrically opens the record with, “hello, I’m Johnny Cash,” and closes “Pigeons” with “sincerely, L. Cohen.” With these simple touchstones, Callahan calls forth a wealth of imagery and mythos that extends far beyond the words on the page and invites the listener to place Callahan in the larger history of song that exists in, not only theirs, but Americas collective psyche. “Another Song” follows as Callahan sings, “when work aint been working all day, why don’t you come on home for lunch and stay, we’ll start working for love not hate, when work ain’t been working all day” over a brooding bass and subtly strummed classical guitar. “Lonesome in a pleasant way,” sounds like just a step shy of nirvana as it slips from Callahan’s rumbling baritone in a slow drawl. “As we lay on the bed wanting for nothing at all, except maybe another song,” he continues as he examines the ultimately unsatisfactory state of contentment; eventually we all desire another song.
“I can’t see myself in the books I read these days, used to be I saw myself on every single page, it was nice to know my life had been lived before, but I can’t see myself in the books that I read anymore,” begins Callahan on “35”. The song’s slow build matches the weight of concern in Callahan’s voice as cymbals and electric guitar shift throughout the arrangement demanding attention when the mood stretches from sadness to acceptance of one’s place in the world and connection (or lack of connection) with others.
While “Protest Song” finds Callahan contemplating a pop singers protest song on late night TV, “The MacKenzies” finds Callahan sitting in for a families son as both parents and Callahan find some sort of healing in communion over memories and emotions gone but never far away. “Let’s Move to the Country” brightens with quietly plucked tones and a simple chasing guitar line as Callahan suggests, “my travels are over, my travels are through, oooo, let’s move to the country just me and you.”
“Breakfast” follows, and, as if after the move, Callahan examines the living together that inevitably comes and it isn’t going well; he sings, “she don’t eat, she don’t sleep, why she don’t even drink, I drink, so that we don’t fight, she don’t drink, so that we don’t fight, she hates to watch me eat or go hungry, still loves me you see”. “Cowboy” plays out like “Don’t Fence Me In’s” long lost cousin with a high lonesome whistle to match. “I’ve been living like a cowboy, on the late late movie, all I need is whiskey, water, tortillas and beans,” Callahan sings. Callahan’s tribute to “Ry Cooder” sounds like an Cooder record outtake while setting the listener up for the record closer, “As I Wander”. A traveler’s contemplation on traveling, “As I Wander” provides a fitting finish to this collection. Callahan accepts that, “I may have been wandering too long.”
Gold Record finds Callahan examining the dynamic between the highway and home and the touchstones that keep us grounded in the midst of life’s whirlwinds. Like a cup of warm hot chocolate, Callahan’s baritone makes the medicine go down with ease as he makes the dismal bearable and the mundane sacred. Pick up Bill Callahan’s Gold Record out via Drag City September 4th and embrace Callahan’s complicated lullaby. https://www.dragcity.com/artists/bill-callahan