Bill Callahan: Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest review – Between the earthy and the heavenly

Double-LP is an expansive exploration of the pastoral, with beautifully drawn vignettes

Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest
    
Artist: Bill Callahan
Genre: Alternative
Label: Drag City

Six years on from Dream River, Bill Callahan’s new double-LP is an expansive exploration of the pastoral, where wolves and shepherds nestle beside 747s and the Incredible Hulk.

Aided by Matt Kinsey and Brian Beattie, Callahan weaves a tapestry of answers to an interesting question, what comes after certainty? After marriage, a child, and the death of his mother? What Comes after Certainty extols the remaining "world of mystery". With spare instrumentation and evocative use of guitar, Callahan's commanding voice becomes the "shepherd" of the record, allowing this outpouring to take place.

“It feels good to be writing again,” he sings on Writing – and there are beautifully drawn vignettes of domesticity and danger, as on Confederate Jasmine and Son of the Sea (“the panic room is now a nursery”). That tension between happiness and anxiety is everywhere: in Young Icarus and its disappointment in memory’s instability, in Tugboats and Tumbleweeds, with its fear about responsibility: “Who mistook you for a guide/ When you’re still a rogue tide.”

Yet Callahan’s playful humour is ever-present, as on The Ballad of the Hulk. It is a leavening element, on a record that walks earthy roads, towards the heavenly.