Bill Callahan Is A Master Of Zen-Like Calm On ‘Gold Record’

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Bill Callahan once was known as the quintessential reclusive indie-rock singer-songwriter. Journalists would describe him in profiles as a difficult, remote subject, a taciturn figure spoke in low tones and laconic riddles. A cipher whose exterior blankness concealed layers of inconceivable darkness underneath.

Try to square that image with “The Mackenzies,” a song from his new album, Gold Record. Over a pokey, homey guitar strum that evokes the old cowboy song “Home On The Range,” Callahan tells a story about a man whose car breaks down in front of his house. After he tries to turn the engine over, an elderly neighbor rushes out and warns him that he’ll ruin his car if he keeps doing that. The neighbor then invites the narrator into his home. “It’s almost beer-thirty,” the neighbor says. “You must be thirsty.” The narrator is quickly disarmed by this man’s hospitality, in spite of his natural shyness. (“See I’m the type of guy / Who sees a neighbor outside / And stays inside and hides.”) Before he knows it, he’s spent his whole day with this family he’s never previously met.

Callahan doesn’t oversell any of this; “The Mackenzies” unfolds as naturally as a John Prine tune. We learn by the end that the old couple has welcomed this man in because their own son has died. But “The Mackenzies” isn’t delivered as some kind of family tragedy. It is, like so many Bill Callahan songs, imbued with a zen-like stillness and sense of space that is so unadorned and lived-in that you might mistake it for one of your own memories.

How incredible has it been to witness the personal and artistic evolution of Bill Callahan over the past 30 years? In the ’90s, under the self-explanatory moniker of Smog, he was part of the generation of lo-fi auteurs who twisted and distorted traditional song forms with various means of sonic self-destruction and lyrical dadaism laced with extreme sardonic fatalism. While his music could at times be beautiful, it was rarely pretty in a straightforward, uncomplicated way. He was always sure to put some sort of distancing agent between himself and the listener, be it a blast of unruly noise or some disturbing turn of phrase that would rattle around your brain long after the song ended.

But as Callahan has aged, retiring Smog and putting out music under his name, the cloudiness has also evaporated from his songs. In his most recent work, which includes 2019’s double-album Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest and the new, relatively succinct and thoroughly lovely Gold Record, Callahan is as direct as he’s ever been. And the subjects that now preoccupy him — love, domesticity, man’s mundane place amid the vast, unknowable mysteries of existence — invite a kind of earnestness and even sentimentality that would have been inconceivable when he first started making albums in his 20s. He is, in other words, very much a man who no longer hides in his own house when his neighbors appear. On Gold Record, Callahan basks in the reciprocal warmth that he himself now seems determined to put out into the world.

It is, again, a pretty incredible arc for a man whose music was once required listening for anyone experiencing the most severe emotional breakdown of their life. The shift seems to have occurred back in 2013, upon the release of his album Dream River. I interviewed Callahan at the time, in spite of being warned that he could be non-responsive and off-puttingly awkward in conversation. Happily, neither of these things proved to be true, though it’s also apparent in retrospect that I caught him in the midst of a transitional period. Callahan noted that he changed his work habits for Dream River; he once would work for many hours at a time on a song, lost in the music and his own interior world, obsessively driving himself to plug away until the moment he felt he was finished. But now, he would make himself stop at a certain point, confident that he could pick up where he left off the following day.

“For this record, I thought, I want to find another way. I want a richer life,” he told me. “I don’t know if you saw that Pollock movie? That type of approach to art where you just destroy yourself and your loved ones, like dying for your art — I think I used to embrace that philosophy. But lately, especially with this last record, I’ve been trying to — because I don’t want to die alone — find a new way of still making good work, but not at the expense of the rest of your life.”

That quote came to mind when I heard one of my favorite tracks from Gold Record, “Another Song,” in which he describes a similar scenario about stopping the day’s work in order to enjoy the company of a partner: “We will finish our songs another day / And watch the light as it fades away / Lonesome in a pleasant way / I guess the light that is gone belongs to yesterday.” When I interviewed him several years ago, Callahan hinted, but wouldn’t confirm, that he was in a new relationship. Years later, upon the release of Shepherd In Sheepskin Vest, he talked openly about his wife, the filmmaker Hanly Banks (whom he married in 2014) and their young child, as well as the recent death of his mother, who passed away from cancer in 2018. He presented himself as an artist whose songs were now being fitted into the contours of his life, rather than vice versa. Bill Callahan is content, it seems, and is now writing contented-man songs, which give off the ambiance of a quiet house in the middle of the night filled only with the sleeping sounds of the most important people in your life.

Certainly there will be those who will miss the deeply unsettled intensity of Callahan’s early work. Gold Record has the vibe of Dylan’s Nashville Skyline or the records that Paul McCartney made in the early ’70s with his wife, Linda. He now revels in comfiness; even the sorta-political “Protest Song,” which mocks a doofy MAGA-head — Callahan, hilariously, pronounces “hurt” like “hoit,” as if he’s John Fogerty singing “Proud Mary” — feels more like a charming dad joke than a broadside. (The best dad joke on Gold Record comes at the start of the first track, “Pigeons,” in which Callahan deadpans, “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.) There is also, literally, a song called “Breakfast” on this album. If Arcade Fire hadn’t already used the title, Callahan could have called this album The Suburbs.

For jilted Smog fans, this all might seem a little like imagining Leonard Cohen shopping at Costco. But for me, the meditative quality and low-key humor of Callahan’s recent work is endlessly fulfilling and inspiring. Gold Record moves me precisely because Bill Callahan shows you can eventually move in rhythm with life, rather than be ground down by it.

Gold Record is out today via Drag City. Get it here.