For the best part of 20 years Bill Callahan was barely there – hiding behind the drift of a name. Smog. Sometimes it was in brackets. (Smog). And then, seemingly out of nowhere, and with enough of a reputation as a brilliant, idiosyncratic songwriter, he shook off that fug and started releasing albums under his own name. It would seem we still don’t know a whole heap about him – beyond the fact he’s always been married to his work. He has had relationships with famous songwriters (Cat Power, Joanna Newsom) which sparked back and forth songs, rejoinders, ripostes. He has kept turning up to work. Until he took a five year break from releasing material.
Now, happily married, and with a child, he follows up last year’s double-album that celebrated the boring, happy married life of settling down and the bleary-eyed dream of fatherhood with this swift, slight collection of songs he ‘found’ in old notebooks. There’s a Covid connection too; no chance to tour so might as well write a new album. And for all of Callahan’s newfound emotional honesty and frankness the dark humour is still there. Who else but Mr Smog would call a collection of songs he found in one of his cupboards Gold Record?
Here he inhabits several narrators, he sketches characters to share impressionistic, fragmentary tales. He’s never seemed like more of a short-story writer than right here. Many of the songs reminding me of the tone and feel of his one prose collection to date, 2010’s Letters To Emma Bowlcut. Here, as was the case in those pages, we are told just enough, left to fill in the blanks. And the full picture emerges piece by piece, or as close as he’ll allow, as close as we’re ever going to get.
The man that once delighted in soulless threats (“I’m going to get so drunk at your wedding”) and glib, drunken-giggle instructions that couldn’t ever hide the darkness, preferring to just laugh in its face (Dress Sexy At My Funeral) is older, wiser and continues to find new ways to work on the craft. His wisdom here – finally – feels not only real but something he has actually felt and something the listener – and the character listening in the song – can feel.
Opener, Pigeons, has him as the limo driver at a wedding. When asked by the newlyweds, on route to their marriage night hotel, for a life lesson, he replies, “When you are dating, you only see each other/ And the rest of us can go to hell/ But when you are married, you’re married to the whole wide world/ The rich, the poor/ The sick and the well/ The straights, and the gays/ And the people who say we don’t use these terms these days…”
Funny, heart-breaking, wise, on point. If it wasn’t Callahan it couldn’t quite happen; wouldn’t be this well controlled. There are always the reminders of strange, mercurial humour too. This song opens with his deep burr of a voice intoning, “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash”. The same song concludes “Sincerely, L. Cohen”. What better, funnier way to mock the giddy-voiced critics so keen to place him on a pedestal as one of the greats; what better, funnier way to mock any hint of song-writerly plagiarism?
Cue songs about couples that aim for creativity in the stolen moments among wedded/family bliss (Another Song) and the wry-mouthed secret that holds it together (“I drink so that we don’t fight/ She don’t drink so that we don’t fight…” we’re told in a song otherwise about the routine, cooking and washing up – Breakfast).
There’s a piece called 35 where Callahan laments not being able to see himself in the books he reads these days. Could it be that he was 35 when he started this song – and now at nearly 55 he’s completed it after noticing, “Tired eyes wander/ Into their own sight/ Leaving a body unscripted/ And forced to improvise…”
And even when he is mucking around – as would seem to be the case on Protest Song and a tune simply called Ry Cooder ( “…he’s a real straight shooter”) there’s something so utterly commendable in Callahan’s confidence to put these fragile arrangements on record. They wouldn’t work if anyone else attempted them. They could so easily fall over with just a trim of acoustic guitar and the full body of his voice. They are both celebrations of songwriting and little Christmas Cracker jokes mocking them. They are brilliant. And stupid. And Bill knows that better than anyone.
You sometimes get the feeling listening to Gold Record – easily one of my favourite Callahan albums of all time, which I would like to think is saying something since I own the lot – that he knows everything. And knows it better than anyone.
This is after all a continuation of one of the all-time great U-turns. Driving back down the highway of song Callahan now seems to be waving and smiling and freely picking up hitchhikers where once he was smoking and drinking at the wheel, giving the finger to the many that never deserved it and reserving the biggest one for himself in the rear-view mirror.
He is at his absolute best here observing the simple life and using a character to explain that. The song Cowboy has him wanting only for whiskey, water, tortillas and beans. He’ll tell us as his guitar strings flick like a horse’s tail to and fro that it is all just one river.
The night I first heard Gold Record I was struck with the need to find my Raymond Carver books. I’m not the first and won’t be the last to mention the obvious comparison, the parallel between Carver’s prose and Callahan’s songs. But it was an immediate feeling. I listened to the first three songs on the new album and became frantic – had I loaned out the Carvers, had I lost them, sold them? No. They were up high (well of course they are very much Top Shelf). I climbed up to collect them, put them by the bed for another day. Even if I don’t read them again I just needed in that moment to know they were near. They have always been so dear to me.
And a song later I heard for the first time The Mackenzies. It tells a story where Callahan’s narrator can’t start his car and heads in for a drink and dinner with the neighbours. He’s usually the sort to stay inside (“and hide”) when he sees a neighbour in the street. But it’s “almost beer-thirty” and the neighbour’s mate owes him a favour and will fix the car. He joins the family (“inside it seemed a place had already been laid for me”) and they bond over their “love of Mel Torme and the early movies of Kid ‘n Play”. He gets comfy and cosy and nestles in – hoping to be called ‘son’ again by the elderly couple. He is taken to a room to rest where he sees photos of “a boy, maybe 21 or so leaning against a brand new Camaro”. The narrator tells us he can tell by the kids eyes that he died a while ago. He shuts his own eyes for five and the song, the story and the concerns of the world all seem to drift away in the same instant. We are told so much but it goes nowhere. It takes us everywhere though.
I can’t hug this album tightly enough so I sat there holding my newly rediscovered Carver books. Eager to press play again. And again.
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