Forever-smoggy Austin singer-songwriter Bill Callahan radiates an alarming amount of warmth on two new covers from the classic American songbook, out today via Drag City Records.
The pedal steel sure don’t hurt. Callahan first flirted with introducing the instrument into his oeuvre a lifetime ago – back in the mid-90s, on Smog’s Red Apple Falls – to some breathtaking effect. Here, on A side “If You Could Touch Her At All” (yes, the Willie- and Waylon-covered “If You Could Touch Her At All”) the steel offers a ringing counterpart to familiar punchlines like “One night of lovin’ don’t make up for six nights alone/But I’d rather have one than none, Lord, because I’m flesh and bone.” Callahan is in excellent form, offering an understated shuffle of lead acoustic guitar throughout. Then there’s that familiar, droopy baritone, which, more than most times, continues to suggest a mélange of both romantic engagement and intellectual distance from the messiness of it all. (The occasional backing vocal, recorded quite subtly, is also a nice touch.)
It’s the B side that really sells this thing for me, though. I cut my teeth on Leonard Cohen with his debut, the rightly sainted Songs of Leonard Cohen, and, on the new single, Callahan works his signature magic on one of that record’s staples, “So Long, Marianne.” There are little sleights of hand – the way Callahan’s arrhythmic acoustics at the song’s start are given tight meter by sparse percussion – but what sells it is the sincerity, mixed with a kind of romantically devastated resolve, in the way Callahan imbues, “Now so long, Marianne/ it’s time that we began/ To laugh and cry and cry and laugh about it all again.” About four-fifths of the way through, Callahan drops most of the adornment, singing plaintively, before it re-enters, almost triumphant, at one point gallivanting about with a poignant and playful little lead guitar.
Callahan’s last record, 2019’s Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest, was a keeper but it’s refreshing to hear how comfortable and assured he is with material like this, songs that carry around a lot of weight and context. He really does make them his own. And when you’re tackling titans like Cohen, that’s saying something.