I can't make up my mind if I prefer Bill Callahan as the grumpy misanthrope with "the ego the size of Texas" or the more humble, self deprecating singer songwriter he has become on his recent solo albums.
Up until 2007, when was known as Smog, Callahan had no worries about presentlng a fairly caustic and cynical view of the world. With age and marriage he has mellowed considerably. True, he doesn't possess the kind of voice that's ever going to sound happy-go-lucky but his baritone drawl now conveys an openly softer, more humorous mood.
A particularly revealing track on this album is the reworking of Let's Move To The Country which he previously recorded as Smog on 1999's Knock Knock. In the original, two sentences were left unfinished : "Let's start a ........ / Let's have a ........." but in the updated version the reticence to embrace the full implications of leaving city life behind have been overcome and he now sings "Let's start a family / Let's have a baby or maybe two."
While his previous album - 'Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest (2019) - was what Callahan calls 'me focused' , 'Gold Record' tells stories from a number of other perspectives. It illustrates that he has lost none of his formidable narrative gifts.
His storytelling prowess is amply illustrated in the opening track Pigeons in which he sings from the p.o.v of a chauffeur of a long white limo employed to drive newly weds. The driver is an old man who is invited by the young couple to share his thoughts on marriage. This he duly does, leaving him unsure how his words had been received: "potent advice or preachy as hell?"
In the opening and closing lines of this track, Callahan makes a witty nod to two of his musical heroes. "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash" he deadpans at the start and ends with "Sincerely, L.Cohen", the sign off Leonard Cohen used for 'Famous Blue Raincoat'. Another song on the album is named after Ry Cooder ("a real straight shooter") to give another unambiguous pointer to Callahan's influences.
The ten tracks of this album were released online weekly one at a time, giving listeners the chance to consider all the tunes separately. The slow, reflective nature of the tracks means that they benefit from being savored individually. All are self contained and were apparently recorded live in the studio in the first or second takes.
The Mackenzies is, for me, the pick of the bunch. This is a master class in transforming a relatively humdrum event (the breakdown of a car) into something far deeper and multi-layered. The mishap leads to a meeting and bonding with the family who live next-door; Callahan confesses that normally: "I'm the type of guy who sees the neighbor outside and stays inside and hides."
The deceptive simplicity and directness of this, an the other tunes, never take us far from the singer's headspace. Even on horseback in Cowboy he is not in the saddle thinking of adventures or destinations but musing "all I need is whisky and water .... and buffalo meat once a week".
In Another Song he sees the virtue of taking a relaxed approach to song writing, in Breakfast he embraces domesticity.
Callahan is not the kind of singer to deal overtly with political causes although the humanity that emanates from his songs shows his empathy with ordinary folk. Protest Song, therefore, is not about him getting worked up over some topical issue but is seen from the point of view of a man returning from a hard day's work and watching a singer on the late night show.
The sleepy closing track, As I Wander, ponders on the old wisdom that not all who wander are lost but, equally, suggests that you can travel just as well in your own mind as in your body. In this respect, it seems tailor make for coming to terms with lockdown restrictions.
Indeed. despite being conceived and recorded in pre-pandemic times, this album feels like the sort of record that more artists will be making as they come to terms with enforced isolation. If others are of a similarly high quality, this may be one of the few silver linings to the Covid-19 crisis.