Best of 2020: 20. Bill Callahan ‘Gold Record’

When writing my much more sensible fun-size countdown last year, I commented that I found Bill Callahan’s ‘Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest’ a little unwieldy given its breadth. It never did ascend to the kind of position occupied by ‘Apocalypse’, ‘Dream River’ and many Smog albums. Having broken a long period of  silence with that double album, it was something of a shock to then find him announcing another record so soon thereafter. The enjoyably titled ‘Gold Record’ was a much more immediate delight, with its languid, finger-plucked jackanory for tired adults tone.

golden record

Having published the magnificent lyrical collection ‘I Drive A Valance’ and an epistolary work of fiction, ‘Letters To Emma Bowlcut’, in the last decade, the blurring of the lines between songwriter and plain writer is ever more pronounced across these ten songs. Some are new pieces, others simply never fitted the times when they were written and ‘Let’s Move To The Country’ is a new take on the track from 1999’s superb ‘Knock Knock’, with some telling lyrical additions to finish sentences and update the story. Where once Callahan may have been more angular and less open, fatherhood and the all-encompassing embrace of family life would seem to have reshaped his perspective.

The narrative drive of ‘The Mackenzies’ steps between those two worlds, with an older man rushing out of his house to help a younger neighbour with car trouble. The latter then reflects,  “we never met before, despite living not door. I’m the type of guy who sees a neighbour outside and stays inside and hides. I’ll run that errand another time.” The joys of the resulting communal experience leave their mark, even as the older family’s tragic loss is revealed and the narrator is given a new role. It’s beautiful, both in terms of how it is delivered and how it is constructed.

‘Breakfast’ has a couple of the rather wonderful moments that occur from time to time in Callahan’s work where it sounds like there is some sort of performative power surge. The most notable occurs around the thirty second mark, where things seem to very briefly get caught up in a strong breeze against which the vocal stands strong. Opener ‘Pigeons’ invokes Johnny Cash and Leonard Cohen while focusing on the life of a wedding limo driver. Not only is his delivery of the word “limo” so on brand it’s quite magical, but it also contains some stirring lyrical economy: “well, they seemed like a match so I stopped looking for cracks in their road and just drove.”

As ever with Bill Callahan, this doesn’t work as backing music. The songs are laden with beguiling details, eloquent nuance and musical inflections that reward the dedicated listener. Similar to many of his albums before this, ‘Gold Record’ seeps into one’s consciousness and offers a commanding, immersive experience if given the chance. Anything that forces you to only do one thing in these times is very welcome indeed, but this writing will far outlast our current concerns.

Buy ‘Gold Record’ from Raves From The Grave

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