Bill Callahan – Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest

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“The master of reiki, he waved his hands over me, And said I eat too much steak, And hold on too long to ancient takes, And both are so hard on my heart”. Bill Callahan’s first album in five years is full of dry humour and no little wisdom. Things have changed since the last time we heard from him. “I got married”, he tells us. “To my wife”. Phew. He’s also had a son. “Giving birth nearly killed me”, he confides, probably only half jokingly. It’s a quieter album than the last few. And more free form. This is not the place to come and meet up with chorus and verse. And middle eight is nowhere to be seen. Instead, a number of the songs seem fragmentary, almost extemporaneous. Yet never slight. For an indie legend with mild country leanings, there’s a hint of jazz in the air this time around. But the lyrics remain as beguiling as ever. There are some lovely similes. “Like two wrestlers, I am mostly still”. Some poignant words about death. “I made a circle, I guess, When I folded her hands across her chest”. And more than a few thoughts about matters of the heart. “True love is not magic, It’s certainty, And what comes after certainty? A world of mystery”. I wonder what the Reiki master would say?

Here’s the final instalment of my favourite albums of 2013.

Mark Kozelek & Jimmy LaValle – Perils from the Sea

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This album was full of characters. Gustavo, the illegal immigrant. J H Park, the flight attendant. His dad. His sister. There was death. Break ups. Touring. The usual. But through it all, magnificently, “the wonder of life prevailed”.

Bill Callahan – Dream River

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This was Bill Callahan’s happy album. At times he seemed almost contented. It’s all relative, of course. “You looked like world-wide Armageddon while you slept” is his form of a compliment. And sitting on a barstool uttering only the words “Beer … Thank you … Beer … Thank you” is about as close as you’re likely to come to a conversation. Few could get away with it, but Bill Callahan certainly can.

Kurt Vile – Wakin On A Pretty Daze

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Song after song with the same tone. The same mood. The same sound. Chilled out. Laid back. Confident. Kurt Vile pulled off a great trick of turning in a really disciplined and coherent album that still totally relaxed and spontaneous. It was an album that you wanted to go on for hours and hours. And with the arrival of the deluxe edition, it did.

Phosphorescent – Muchacho

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Much was made of Matthew Houck’s new-found love of electronica. But he blended it beautifully with Phosphorescent’s signature-style, slightly off-kilter americana. There were the usual yips. Raggedy guitars. Head-scratching song titles. But most of all there were great melodies and an extra dimension to the sound.

Arctic Monkeys – AM

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There were no frills, no flourishes to this version of the Arctic Monkeys. The sound was slinky, sexy, groovy. The themes were late night. Lonely. But then up popped Arabella with her “interstellar-gator skin boots” and “Barbarella silver swimsuit”. Oh, being a rock superstar is such hell.

Bill Callahan – Dream River

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If Bill Callahan were on Facebook, his status would most likely say ‘In A Relationship’. His last album, Apocalypse, was born on the road with songs about being alone in hotel rooms. Here, too, he’s on a journey, but it’s more a journey of the mind. And this time you’d be forgiven for thinking that he’s found some companionship and that he’s happy that way. “I like it when I take the controls from you, And when you take the controls from me”, he sings on ‘Small Plane’, “I really am a lucky man”. And on the closer, ‘Winter Road’, again he’s travelling. “World spinning heavy and slow, And I’m headed home, Time itself means nothing, But time spent with you”. Yet life as Bill Callahan’s partner, as previous ones might attest, probably isn’t always straightforward. “You looked like worldwide armageddon while you slept …”, he sings on ‘Javelin Unlanding’. Not always what a girl expects to hear. But the thought is soon clarified. “… You looked so peaceful, you scare me”, he says, and all is well again. But we should be wary of taking Bill Callahan too literally. He’s a consummate storyteller. When he tells us he’s sitting in a bar and that “the only words I said today are ‘Beer’ and ‘Thank you'”, we can well believe him. But the chances are that it’s a tale as tall as ‘Summer Painter’, which he presents as the story of a summer job he had painting boats. In the end, it doesn’t matter whether he’s really journeying or just imagining. The words on a Bill Callahan album are always worth listening to. “The eagle flies using the river as a map, A small animal in its clasp, Alive and enjoying the ride”. And what a great ride.

Pitchfork review

Consequence of Sound review

Paste Magazine review

The AV Club review

New York Times review

The Line of Best Fit review

American Songwriter review