At a glance, Bill Callahan’s Gold Record seems insincere. From the album title that leans toward a brag to his monotone and plain-spoken delivery on subjects ranging from harsh to hilarious, he proves, on a close listen, to be one of the most sincere American songwriters working today. He takes these subjects—again, on the rainbow from a failed protest song, to driving people to a wedding—and elevates them, through absolutely delightful wordplay and straight-up cleverness.
The instrumentation on this album, compared to last year’s Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest (moreso to prior albums like Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle), is unremarkable. There are some high points—uncomplicated finger-picking to match the uncomplicated (in spots) lyrics is the standard, throughout. Despite this lack of finesse in one department, Bill Callahan brings his greatest weapon to the table, a plate he has balanced from his work with Smog, all the way to his solo discography: complete and utter consistency. There is not, including the deeply-confusing dub album Have Fun With God (a companion to its predecessor, Dream River), a weak Bill Callahan album. There are patchy Bill Callahan albums, Gold Record being among them, but even at his patchiest, Callahan can upstage most at their best.
When he’s really on form, Bill Callahan is a less-preachy, less-miserable version of Mark Kozelek. This is not to denigrate Callahan’s talent, absolutely the opposite; the comparison to Koz is meant only to lift Bill and wag the proverbial bony critical finger at the fallen Sun Kil Moon. Gold Record’s early tracks like “Another Song” and “35” don’t feel lazy, per se, but feel like standard fare for Callahan—which, once again, is better than some at their best.
Opening track “Pigeons” may be one of Callahan’s catalog-best tracks. It contains all of his hallmarks: quotability for days, even from the opening line; it’s playful and ruminative. Amid the dreariness of present-day life, it’s a nice pick-me-up, Gold Record at its most optimistic. It feels like an anti-lockdown track, not in the sense of a protest (that’s later in the album), but in that it has an utterly positive feeling to it. It’s a tremendous opener and a great way to establish distance from this album and his prior, which focused on candor and family.
There is a certain sweetness Callahan carries from Shepherd to Gold Record. This makes the album something that much more special. On the standout tracks, you’ll find yourself in true moments of pause. “Pigeons” sets a truly excellent table for what is to come. The album is peppered with (a deeply overused word, but here, an apt one) genius moments. “The Mackenzies” takes the mundane nature of something as simple as fixing a car and turns it into a yarn somewhere between sinister and heart-on-sleeve loving and (as aforementioned) sweet. There is wordplay and almost roleplay. Callahan, throughout Gold Record, is a cowboy, a drifter, Johnny Cash, and Leonard Cohen in equal parts, but make no mistake: he is never not Bill Callahan.
As he tells us in the excellent closing track, “As I Wander”, love archives me. Gold Record is, as well, an archive of love: of the past from which Bill Callahan comes, in both personal and musical life. What sets him apart from the 2000s/2010s “miserabilists” is the fact that he’s not miserable. He just wants to move out to the country, wander, have lunch with the neighbors after he fixes his car, and have a tongue-in-cheek protest of a protest song. Let him do his thing. In the case, the result is lovely.