Bill Callahan Carves Out His Place Among the All-Time Greats on 'Gold Record'

Bill Callahan Carves Out His Place Among the All-Time Greats on 'Gold Record'
Bill Callahan is a fantastic songwriter, but he cannot write himself into just anyone. His characters are wry and weary middle-aged men, aware of their limitations and increasingly at peace with them. In short, they're basically Callahan if two or three things were different, if he took a different profession or lived in a different neighbourhood, straddling the line between "write what you know" and escapist fantasy. On aging meditation "35," the 54-year-old musician sings, "I can't see myself in the books I read these days / Used to be I saw myself on every single page." On Gold Record, he limits himself to those ever-decreasing pages.

Despite this awareness, he still finds ways to challenge himself and succeed. On Gold Record, Callahan's seventh album since abandoning his Smog moniker and coming only a year after Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest, he forgoes the thematic links and recurring motifs of his most recent albums. Instead, he steps into the scuffed boots of his doppelgängers for a series of stripped-down narratives that find him wringing universal truths from increasingly specific reference points. 

So much of Callahan's best work is about finding a place in the world, or at least trying to be at peace with the search, and Gold Record has him certainly finding success, though he doesn't always know it. Charming opening track "Pigeons" is ostensibly about a limo driver giving advice to a just-married couple, but bookended by invocations of two of 20th century songwriting's most lauded names: he kicks it off by intoning "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash," and ends with a "Sincerely, L. Cohen" in his rich bass-baritone, which I swear gets impossibly deeper with each record, inching ever-closer to the two gravel-voiced icons he name-dropped. In his own way, it's Callahan wondering, with the cocked-eye curiosity that dots his work, if he's ready to sit at the big table with the best singer-songwriters — and he certainly is.

Gold Record features a loose collection of songs built around similarly loose instrumentation. Guitars squeak and strum, percussion is faint and soft, trumpets occasionally wail in the distance. There are no head-turning licks or subtle details that take away from Callahan's ever-deepening purr. And when Callahan is at his most outlandish and personable, he's able to draw out the most emotion, made all the more powerful in spite of the album's limited sonic palette. If Callahan's finding himself increasingly unable to relate to other characters, he's using his music to forge a different path, inviting his audience to stand in his place.

Whether telling the story of taking the place of his neighbour's deceased son at the dinner table in "The Mackenzies," embodying a posturing boomer threatening an idealistic up-and-coming singer on "Protest Song" or inventing the name of a "difficult yoga pose" on "Ry Cooder," Callahan is welcoming anyone who has ever felt lost, confused, uncertain or threatened into his humble abode, giving listeners the chance to learn, question or laugh — to challenge their notions and try something new in the hopes of discovering more about oneself.

But there's no better example of hearing the proof of Callahan having truly come into his own than on the impossibly relevant reimagining of "Let's Move to the Country," the opening track from Smog's 1999 breakthrough, Knock Knock. It not only comes at a time when urban centres worldwide have lost their beating hearts to gentrification and the pandemic, but it finds him finally able to articulate his full desires. Twenty-one years ago, his words got caught in his throat — "Let's start a... / Let's have a...." But now, he's got them: "Let's start a family / Let's have a baby, or maybe two," sings Callahan, newly a family man. "My travels are over, my travels are through / Let's move to the country, just me and you." He's said it before, but now he finally means it. (Drag City)