Bill Callahan, “Gold Record”
By Mark Richardson · September 09, 2020 Merch for this release:
Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD), Cassette

Bill Callahan has written two wonderful songs about airplane travel—“Small Plane,” from 2013’s Dream River, and “747,” from 2019’s Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest—and as a songwriter, it’s fair to say he’s reached cruising altitude himself. From 35,000 feet, the zig-zagging patterns of human behavior begin to make some sense, and Callahan’s insights arrive with new clarity. But the fact that he’s on a creative hot streak doesn’t mean he’s not challenging himself. After years of writing bemused and darkly shaded songs about isolation, detachment, and self-destruction, Callahan, now married with child, has turned to the details of domestic life. For him, the subject is legitimately risky—it’s nice to hear a story of how someone found peace, and yet images of serenity don’t necessarily make for compelling art. But even in this quieter and more reflective mode, there’s a lot going on beneath the tranquil surface.

Shepherd was Callahan’s longest studio LP, and contained his first new material in six years. Gold Record, out just over a year later, feels like an extension of the earlier album. Compared to its predecessor, these songs are looser and warmer, the stakes a bit lower. Where Shepherd described life-changing epiphanies (“747,” “What Comes After Certainty”) Gold Record is more observational. The narrator stays in place as the world rushes past him, but his eyes are open. “I notice when people notice things,” Callahan sings in “As I Wander.”

What kinds of things? In the opening “Pigeons,” he notes how marriage intensifies life, turning a tight bundle of infatuation into a risky embrace of humanity. Here, in a song that ranks among the best Callahan has written, he plays the part of a limo driver taking newlyweds to their honeymoon. Each stanza feels like a deep, exhaled breath, and as he looks at the couple in the back seat, he offers some advice: “When you are dating you only see each other/ And the rest of us can go to hell/ But when you are married/ You’re married to the whole wide world.” It’s one of many lines on the album where, the first time you hear it, you ask yourself “Is that true?” And by puzzling through and mapping the writer’s experience onto your own, the song becomes yours.

Callahan builds arrangements around his acoustic guitar, and the occasional embellishments—distant horns, brushed drums, pedal steel—support the tunes but don’t otherwise draw too much attention to themselves. In “Another Song,” which frames Callahan’s songwriting practice as a job—one undertaken in the spirit of joy, without expectation—a synth imparts a ripple of anxiety, suggesting the fear that accompanies the creative act. In “The Mackenzies,” a sharp piece of short fiction masquerading as a folk tune, the narrator enters a neighbor’s home and realizes how a kind gesture from a stranger can soften the ache of loss, and a slow cymbal wash gives the twist at the end an extra dollop of drama.

Gold Record includes a remake of “Let’s Move to the Country,” which Callahan first cut in 1999 for the album Knock Knock, when he was recording as Smog. Then, it was pure fantasy, a wish for a quiet and simple life from a man who wandered the earth, lonely and alienated as a robot by a river. “Let’s start a…” went one line in the original, and “Let’s have a…” went the next, the second half of each too frightening to say out loud. Twenty-one years on, in this new version, Callahan completes the lines, but nothing is fixed. Even way out here, surrounded by people you love, there’s still plenty to explore and a lot to think about, and one gets the feeling he’s just scratching the surface.

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