When Bill Callahan began his music career in the ’90s, his instrumentation was challenging, downright experimental and seemed like the youthful, restorative jolt that would reform the dried-up alternative country genre. But with each passing album, Callahan would phase out the vocal effects, the strings would appear less frequently, the guitar slightly less distorted and his sound was becoming more and more stripped back. Two decades later, Callahan is back with his most sparse effort yet, Gold Record.
Although it sounds more in line with legends of the singer-songwriter scene — such as Leonard Cohen or Townes Van Zandt — rather than Callahan’s contemporaries, this isn’t an album from an artist who has resigned himself to a fate of regurgitating his influences. Gold Record is an album of restraint by someone who has rendered his frenetic youth into a condensed ball of confidence, reflective and cherishing in ways only garnered through accepting that half of his life has already passed and applying those lessons to the second half to come.
The album is simple: an acoustic guitar, Callahan’s trademark baritone voice with monotone delivery and a pillow of brass instrumentation that rises and falls out of the mix. He leans more on his pen game with each track acting as a cozy vignette leaping from different sections of shy and sleepy American life. Callahan speaks in character for most songs, the best example being the intro track “Pigeons,” which surveys the life of an experienced wedding chauffeur transporting a newlywed couple toward their next adventure in life. The artist provides advice for this couple through his character in modest and unconceited ways, each nugget bolstered by a goofy but endearing parade of trumpets.
Gold Record is at its best when it follows a formula: wry atmosphere built on a fleshed-out world, tinged with heartfelt connection and homespun truths. He rarely strays away from the realism akin to the literature of Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff, though his is not quite as dirty. The songs here expect a great amount of patience so Callahan can fully realize his stories. The downside of this method is when the listener doesn’t get a great return on investment — some songs, such as “Another Song,” don’t live up to the methodical approach of Gold Record. When the characters are sidetracked in favor of spotlighting the more conceptual material about love and time, it feels like Callahan is not utilizing his songwriting strengths to the fullest. Rushing to the point, he leaves only a skeleton of what could have been.
The formula deviates slightly for each song but takes a full left turn on “Protest Song,” in which the typical salt-of-the-earth protagonist is replaced with a disconnected, stubborn vessel who pits himself against a rising tide of political action. As a satire, the song works well to illustrate the main character’s life and rantings, such as when Callahan sings “I’d vote for Satan/ If he said it was wrong” as well as the inclusion of an Elmer Fudd-esque delivery whenever he makes a threat.
He reverts back to the syrupy charm of the rest of the album on the next track, “The Mackenzies,” which details a chance encounter between two neighbors. The withdrawn generosity of one of the neighbors slowly unravels as the listener is given more clues about their life and tragedy. The last two tracks allow for the characters to dissolve, permitting Callahan to speak for himself. “Ry Cooder” is a tribute to the titular guitarist, but the real standout is “As I Wander,” in which Callahan recovers from his omnipotent perspective on quotidian life and grounds himself in a wash of time and kindled emotion.
Here, Callahan confronts his songwriting persona as just another part of who he really is. It’s his most musically and lyrically complex song on Gold Record, a fitting closing track that sees Callahan saying goodbye to all the stories told and all the characters he felt attached to, letting them rest in time like tire tracks on a dirt road.