Since settling down with his wife and becoming a father, longtime champion of lo-fi folk rock Bill Callahan sees the world through new eyes, and it has bled over into his music. Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest, his first batch of new material since 2014’s somewhat divisive Have Fun with God, finds Callahan returning to his raw, minimalist roots, opting for stripped-down production and shortened track lengths instead of the abstract experimentation of his more recent output. With his world-wearied, matter of fact spoken word delivery and pastoral imagery over domestic vignettes, he has crafted a laid back, pitch-perfect meditation retreat that serves as a glowing argument for purchasing high-end headphones.
Even more so than in the past, Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest is comprised of autobiographical, slice of life musings. Sprawling diary entries like country and western tune “Watch Me Get Married,” bittersweet journey “Released,” and twangy, bass-heavy “Son of the Sea” see Callahan detailing the specific events of his personal life in simple, straightforward terms. He continues to break the fourth wall even further as he brings the listener into the construction of the album. We open with “Shepherd’s Welcome,” a dreamy invitation to sit down and listen to his atmospheric saga, and move through folksy metanarratives like “The Ballad of the Hulk,” in which Callahan narrates his own song in real time. He even brings us into the nitty gritty of the wilderness of his creative process on the aptly titled “Writing.”
Callahan’s supple, reassuring baritone is therapeutic, absorbing the listener within its mellow allure. Tracks like drifting “Angela,” fluttering, expansive “747,” and sleepy, wilting “Circles” send shivers down your spine in the best way possible. It’s difficult to not give yourself over to songs such as “Black Dog on the Beach,” propelled by the hopeful, childlike wonder to be found in life’s most instinctual pleasures. Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest invites active listening, forcing the audience to take a step back and allow the music to wash over them. As the album progresses, it becomes all the more entrancing, moving through “Young Icarus,” like waves beating against the shore, “Morning is My Godmother,” a haunting Latin-inspired chamber piece, and finally closing with the jazzy, ambling “The Beast.”
For all of its barebones construction, Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest is bursting with catchy, melodic leanings. From the sticky groove of “Confederate Jasmine” to the bubbly, sing-song “Call Me Anything” the lively, vibrant “Tugboats and Tumbleweeds,” you don’t have to look far on the record to find hummable passages and buzzing toe-tappers. The stinging melodies on tracks such as “What Comes After Certainty” serve to further highlight delightfully sardonic lyrics like “I don’t believe in fate, I believe in destiny.” Callahan even uses the fetching refrains as a political soapbox on bluesy, environmentalist “Camels” and a religious pulpit on his animated take on the gospel standard “Lonesome Valley.”
For nearly thirty years, Bill Callahan has been building a devoted following with his genre-bending indie folk, and even on his seventeenth studio album, he’s still taking the time to hone his craft. In 2005, he dropped the Smog moniker and started releasing music under his own name, and Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest feels like a turning point of the same magnitude. Callahan is now approaching his innate gift of storytelling with the focus and attention of fatherhood, and his music is all the better for it.