The Lowdown: A man gets married, becomes a father, and the way he looks at the world is altered. It’s a story as old as time (maybe a little bit older even), popular among artists but by no means restricted to them. But few people, artists or otherwise, have quite the ability for self-reflection as Bill Callahan. The Austin singer-songwriter has steadily evolved his sound from the early lo-fi days under his “Smog” moniker to the pastoral clarity of records like Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle and Dream River. Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest is Callahan’s first album of entirely new material in approximately six years, and it’s as personal of a record as we’ve ever gotten from him.
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The Good: For nearly 30 years, Callahan has been one of the indie world’s greatest voices, lyrically and vocally. His baritone may seem steely, but there’s vulnerability underneath, like when his voice breaks to show that he’s human after all. Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest is concerned with settling down, but not settling for less. Callahan’s vocals are relaxed, like he’s singing reflections to himself as he drifts to sleep, hoping to remember them in the morning. But they aren’t a glorified audiobook, like recent Sun Kil Moon albums.
Sometimes, there’s a sudden shift in his delivery. “Well, I’ve been lookin’ back at the old ways/ Over my shoulder like salt or sugar,” he sings on “The Ballad of the Hulk”, turning into a soft croon when sugar is mentioned. On ode to domesticity “Son of the Sea”, he calmly states, “I got married to my wife/ She’s lovely,” before proclaiming, “AND I HAVE A SON.” For anyone who’s followed Callahan through the darkness of records like The Doctor Came at Dawn and Red Apple Falls, knowing that he’s found stability and comfort is wonderful, and that he’s able to keep making compelling music is even better.
The Bad: Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest is an easygoing album, mostly featuring Callahan casually singing and strumming his acoustic guitar, with some overdubbing. It’s also over an hour long and has 20 songs. If you’re not into the first song, you’re not going to be into the second, third, or twentieth ones. But even if you’re engrossed at first, you might find your mind wandering a bit around the halfway point, given how sonically similar the songs are. Although it wears its aesthetic very well, there’s occasionally the desire for the urgency of tracks like “Bloodflow” and “Drover”. If that sounds like we’re critiquing Callahan for being happy and making music that reflects that mindset, hey, we have to nitpick somehow.
The Verdict: This is not an album for just throwing on in the background while surfing social media (or even reading this review). Before putting it on, make sure you have an hour to yourself to just let it wash over you. Callahan’s ambition and essence haven’t been diminished by him being in a good headspace. He’s a man born to tell stories, and he’s no less of a storyteller than he was in his early 30s.
Essential Tracks: “The Ballad of the Hulk”, “Son of the Sea”, and “Tugboats and Tumbleweeds”