It's been six years since Bill Callahan released Dream River, an album which, like pretty much all Bill Callahan / Smog records, has aged nothing but gracefully. Now he's back with a new collection called Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest which contains a whopping 20 tracks. You can only really get away with a title and duration like that if you've earned a fair bit of good will, and Drag City know that they can trust this fella to deliver the goods. Despite the album's epic length, which can bloat even the best intended projects, I fully expect this new one to sit proudly at the top of that spotless back catalogue.
First of all, the production on this record is unbelievably good, the superlative I'd normally use - lush - is a massive understatement. For me, this is Callahan's Blood On The Tracks, and with that i mean it might not even be his best album, but it's a special one, I'm certain it will be a memorable one (and easily the best of the already impressive "Bill Callahan" era releases) and one that i'll keep coming back to. He even seems to nod to Dylan on "Young Icarus" which has more than a passing resemblance to Dylan's "Simple Twist of Fate". There's not quite as much blood on these tracks though, and this album contains some of the most hopeful songs that Callahan has ever put to paper. "What Comes After Certainty" is essentially about how good life can be and there's a generally positive vibe throughout with songs about everyday life and fatherhood and family (with the occasional flight of fancy).
"The Ballad Of The Hulk" is as good and as ridiculous a song you'll find from Callahan (the character is drawn out with the hilarious precision of the Cohen brothers), and an in the Smog releases in particular there's plenty of competition. Elsewhere, the pedal steel on "Black Dog On The Beach" is a perfect touch, and even on the initially bleak, kitchen-sink sounding "Son of the Sea", where Callahan seems to flit between fiction and real life, the characters end up walking on the sunny side of the street. It's difficult to tell if the proclamation on "Writing" ("It feels good to be writing again, clear water flows from my pen") is deeply earnest or just another dry self-mocking take from the master of understated mirth himself, but at this point (track 5) it doesn't matter at all, it's clear that the quick fire vignettes, beautiful production and warm instrumentation on this record are a winning formula.
To be honest I'm amazed that any songwriter has 20 songs as good as this in them, so to unload them all together, on the same album is an absolute master stroke.