Album Review: Bill Callahan – Gold Record

by Thomas Blake

Bill Callahan understands the link between music and humour. Specifically the link between a certain, very American, type of dry, self-deprecatingly maudlin humour and country & western music. Other non-country artists knew it too. Leonard Cohen did, and so too did Callahan’s old friend David Berman. They successfully recorded songs in the country idiom, using its hangdog vernacular and injecting it with a modern, poetic wit of their own. And, perhaps crucially, they understood the importance of timing, the pregnant pause and the sudden flip from dumb to erudite or from broken to hopeful.

Callahan introduces ‘Pigeons’, which is the first song on Gold Record, with the words ‘Hello, I’m Johnny Cash’, and finishes the track off with ‘Sincerely, L. Cohen’ (pinched from the end of Cohen’s ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’). Is he positioning himself in the lineage of greats? Is it a kind of ironic humblebrag?

In the five-and-a-bit minutes between those two references we get a tale in the voice of a limo driver, imparting his homespun wisdom on a pair of newlyweds. It’s a monologue by equal turns poignant and uplifting, and from the start it’s funny as hell. ‘Well the pigeons ate the wedding rice and exploded/Somewhere over San Anton…[pause]…io’ is an opening worthy of Berman, the king of great openings, and that pause in itself is a thing of beauty. And it only gets cleverer and more interesting as it progresses. The conversation between the driver and the young couple becomes a conversation between two sides of Callahan’s own character: the experienced, ever-so-slightly jaundiced folk singer (becoming wiser, kinder, more avuncular as he ages) and the man settling down to domesticity, and wondering where it will take him (Callahan’s last album, 2019’s Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest, explored the new feelings that came with starting a new chapter as a family man).  

By the end of ‘Pigeons’ – as the muted brass and plashing drums ripple together – you get the feeling that the name-dropping is all done in the spirit of generous homage, genuine and perhaps a little self-effacing, and that the humour is employed in the service of some big and soul-searching (and perhaps career-defining) ideas.

And the same can be said for the album’s title. Of course, it’s funny: Callahan, the indie lifer, is playing with the idea of popularity. Maybe he’s disdainful of the idea of making records just to sell them. But then again, he’s a family man now, and he needs popularity to survive and to provide. And then there are the other connotations of the word ‘gold’ – the link with the gold of a wedding ring (cemented in that first song), or the idea of gold as a signifier of nostalgia, of the good times. Golden oldies.

The rest of the album explores similar themes: ‘We’ll start working for love not pay/when work ain’t been working all day,’ Callahan sings in ‘Another Song’, which blurs the borders between the personal creativity of a music career and the shared creativity of a loving relationship. ‘Let’s Move to the Country’ employs frankness and simplicity as tools for creating a kind of Arcadia (it’s a blissful counterpoint to the darker original version of the song, which Callahan released in his Smog days). On ’35’ he notices his changing relationship with literature, while ‘Protest Song’ (ironically titled – it’s mostly spoken) nimbly creates a kind of satirical Russian doll: it’s a protest song about a protest singer who is protesting about another protest singer. It is also a pertinent comment on generational difference.

The age gap is explored from the other side on ‘The Mackenzies’, essentially a short story written with the precision of Hemingway and the disquieting ambiguity of Ambrose Bierce. You are never quite sure whether it’s an ultimately uplifting Hollywood weepy or a creepy psychological horror, and that makes it the perfect slice of Americana. It’s one of Callahan’s most remarkable pieces of writing.

‘Cowboy’, with its whistled intro and outro and its quiet, wild horns, lovingly sends up the romantic notion of the Old West while touting its importance to the American cinematic imagination. ‘Ry Cooder’ is a pithy biog of the great guitarist with a metafictional twist, and closing track ‘As I Wander’ acts as a kind of skewed mirror to the record’s first song: here the narrator is a conductor on a train, and instead of focusing on the humour that is such a big part of country music, he relaxes back into the American landscape that permeates that country’s culture.

Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest was the album that saw Bill Callahan find some peace with himself and the world, and it was one of last year’s best albums. On Gold Record he finds himself examining that peace from different perspectives. As a result, each individual song has a greater focus and a more striking autonomy, and the whole is wider-ranging but just as cohesive. Gold Record is, without irony, an absolute treasure.