1. Bill Callahan - Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest
On the merchandise stand for Bill Callahan's recent tour was a copy of 'I Drive a Valance' - a book of his collected lyrics. I tend to squirm a little when I encounter books of lyrics, 'Don't be daft!' I grumble, 'You're words will look foolish on their own without the music to back them up, get back to the album sleeve where you belong!'
But Bill Callahan is different. Very different. His words stand up effortlessly on their own. From the bawling of the esoteric snapshots of early Smog songs to the rich and evocative storytelling of 'Dream River' (all contained in the 'Valance' book), there is something about Callahan the wordsmith that sets him apart from all other songwriters.
The lyrics to 'Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest' have yet to make it onto the printed page. I hope that they do, because they depict Callahan's movement into a different phase of his life (marriage, fatherhood) and are amongst the most startling words he has penned.
Before we meet the family, the opening suite of songs take a long view at the past. Recollections of his father are the basis of 'Black Dog on the Beach' and a former relationship is raked over in 'Angela' ('... like motel curtains, we never really met', is one of his most sardonic lines)
But it's the tale of his once having shared a tailor with the actor who used to play the troubled Bruce Banner in 'The Ballad of the Hulk' that is the most captivating. Bill is of the age that fondly remembers Bill Bixby's lonesome interpretation: 'Shoes good enough for walking highways, but never quite far enough away.' With hindsight, he contrasts his life with the fictional superhero: ('I never got angry/ maybe I should have/ I could have cleared some things away...'). Having chewed over past though, it's time to bring us up to date.
'I got married. To my wife. She's lovely' he earnestly declares on 'Son of the Sea' before his unabashed confession as to how his life has transformed:
'I had a son,
Giving birth nearly killed me.
Some say I died
And all that survived
Was my lullabies'
As with much of this album, these are lines that can be pondered, interpreted and reinterpreted over and over again.
'Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest' is a thoughtful album, the subtle acoustic melodies and gentle Country style strummings are never obtrusive, they're there to provide the necessary support to Callahan's insights, acceptance and homespun wisdom.
There are twenty songs here, each of them a story that reveals a narrative arc that runs throughout the whole piece. It may require more attention than we're currently used to giving to albums, but once you succumb to its remarkable storytelling, you will be richly rewarded.