2020 – Rock / Folk
On his latest album, Gold Record, Bill Callahan takes on a more intense role as a storyteller who traces detailed and precise lyrics and develops a sound that seems to echo from the world.
It is nothing new for anyone that 2020 is being the most difficult year of recent times. Within a world that is being ravaged by fire, we find police violence, murder and racism while a virus that has killed more than 100,000 people forces most of us to remain locked inside our homes. However, a positive factor of all this is that the creativity of singers and composers flew freely during the period of isolation. From Charli XCX with her homemade, electronic and explosive how i’m feeling now to Taylor Swift and her dark and cold folklore tales, these projects have been showing incredible and intimate pieces, albums that could only be polished on this occasion. Likewise, after being unable to start his tour to promote his latest album, Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest, Bill Callahan sat at his home and started working on a set of songs, Gold Record, which brought together several playful stories that seemed to be told by a grandfather to his grandchildren.
Like many songs that Callahan has written throughout his career, Gold Record arrives full of palpable and detailed stories that seem to walk on the line that delimits the real, the imaginary and the dreams. According to him, for Apple Music, Gold Record is a set of great song that doesn’t bother to connect with each other to tell a single story, but rather, several songs that work as lyrical units alone that tell stories filled with memories. Even with the help of several strings and synthesizers, Bill looks like an old and wise man who looks at a distant landscape next to just a guitar, while braiding lyrics in an improvised way about the knowledge of his life. In a nutshell, Gold Record comes with songs that seem to be stories of moments of a peaceful and homely life, without many emotions, but that still has its beauty.
The album opener, “Pigeons,” is the highest moment of the entire album. Assuming the role of a wedding limo driver, Callahan begins to describe a movie in our mind: first it begins with morbid and dimly metaphorical scenes (“Well, the pigeons until the wedding rice/And exploded somewhere over San Antonio”) and then he begins his narrative talking about a specific time that he caught a couple after the ceremony. Mixing his memories (“Ever since I’d gotten married I started working weddings”) with the voices of the newlyweds in the back seat (“They’re in the back laughing about some uncle named Jack”), Bill built this whole realistic and reflective story. At one point, the groom sees that the driver has a wedding ring and asks him for advice. The driver says:
When you are dating you only see each other
And the rest of us can go to hell
But when you are married, you are married to the whole wide world
The rich, the poor
The sick and the well
The straights and gays
And the people that say ‘We don’t use those terms these days’
The salt and the soil
Likewise, the best songs on Gold Record are filled with detailed lyrics that tell simple stories of a life that doesn’t live in the spotlight. In “The Mackenzies” we have the second-best moment of the album, where Bill confuses us between the lines of the real and the imaginary. He starts by telling the story of a man who tries to start his car but can’t, which draws the attention of an old man, who appears and says that it would only make it worse. Then the old man, with whom the man never spoke since he describes himself as “Who sees a neighbor outside/And stays inside and hides,” calls the man for a beer and later for dinner with him and his wife. After dinner, the man is taken to a room to rest, where he sees pictures of a young guy, who he supposes to be the couple’s deceased son. After the man wakes up from a quick nap, he sees the couple on the door saying, “Son, it’s okay.” In addition to a twist at the end that can carry several meanings, every sound and lyric part of the song is impressive for the simple fact that they are incredibly detailed but at the same time simple.
While Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest presented a happier view of marriage and parenthood — in a song he mentions that his son was watching Sesame Street while his wife was making a bed towel — Gold Record appears a little tragic, but still with love. In “Breakfast” he reports on a couple who seem distant and close at the same time. He sings, “She hates to watch me eat/Or go hungry,” but then completes alongside a guitar and drum beats, “Still loves me, you see.” Fortunately, in a more hopeful view, in “Let’s Move to the Country” he invites his beloved to follow a simpler life. He says, “Let’s start a family/Let’s have a baby/Or maybe two.” In addition, several other songs on the album, despite not focusing their efforts on something romantic, present their lines dedicated to love — “And I may have been wandering too long/In love with wandering, wandering, wandering love” in “As I Wander.”
Furthermore, Gold Record also appears as Bill’s view of himself. In the beginning, in “35,” he found himself lost (“I can’t see myself in the books I read these days” and “I could no longer find my way, Lord”) and in “Protest Song,” he shows himself sick of today’s mundane songs that are shallow. While in “Another Song” he sings about the inspirations and difficulties of writing songs (“We will finish our songs another day/And watch the light as it fades away/Lonesome in a pleasant way/I guess the light that’s gone to yesterday”), in “Cowboy” he paints picturesque and grand landscapes and a simplistic life alongside a guitar, whistles from the west and trombones. In an almost magical and automatic way, these songs can capture everything Bill is, everything he is not and everything he values.
At the end of the album, with some broken notes into strings, “Ry Cooder,” a tribute to the Root-Rock star, comes up with a curious aesthetic: it looks like a mix of Jazz and alternative that results in a track that seems to have come out of a soundtrack to a stereotypical detective movie. In addition to the way that the instruments that interact in a very well-designed way, the lyrics are probably the silliest thing Bill has ever written, however, he still manages to sound reasonable and purposeful. In the last track, “As I Wander,” he brings his experiences together in a track that looks like a worrying farewell. He starts singing, “I travel, I sing, I notice when people notice things,” while a saxophone, guitar and synthesizers mix themselves gracefully in the background. In the end, we understand that he paints himself as a train, responsible for taking people to their homes. We take the ticket; we enter and we don’t know where we are going but we know it will be right.