the inside track

‘Pigeons’ Is Bill Callahan at His Best

Photo: Frank Hoensch/Red Ferns

You’ve already had a chance to hear Bill Callahan’s whole new album by now. Since late June, the singer-songwriter has released a track a week from the project — something you’d expect from a budding internet-age pop or rap star, not a reclusive, contemplative lo-fi performer who’s been at this for 30 years. But look at it a different way and it’s the perfectly casual release strategy for new Callahan music. With a touch of that signature deadpan humor, he’s calling the album Gold Record, released in full today.

Nearly ten weeks later, the Gold Record track that still sticks with me is “Pigeons,” one of Callahan’s best songs. It’s delicate, swaying back and forth with just Callahan’s fingerpicking and flourishes of percussion, strings, and horns. But you’ve come for Callahan’s lyrics, like you always do, delivered in that wisened baritone he’s developed over the past ten or so years. In “Pigeons,” he takes on the persona of a limo driver picking up a couple after their wedding. There’s enough reason to love the song for its beginning alone: “Well, the pigeons ate the wedding rice / and exploded somewhere over San Antonio,” Callahan drags, referencing that old myth for a two-line encapsulation of his worldview.

Or, well, his former one. Callahan got married in 2014, had a son the following year, and spent a few years away from recording. The eventual Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest, released in June 2019, was not only another career highlight but a new turn. His music became less lonely, and his eye for the simple things turned to his home life. “I just wanted to prove that your life doesn’t end if you settle down,” he told Pitchfork. Marriage also made Callahan something of a sap; in that same profile, he tried to convince the writer to propose to his girlfriend, right there in Austin, Texas, over the phone. Likewise, the limo driver in “Pigeons” says he started driving for weddings only after he got married himself; it was something he couldn’t quite appreciate before.

In the middle of the song, the newlyweds ask Callahan’s limo driver for advice after noticing his wedding ring. It’s hard not to hear Callahan singing about himself: “When you are dating, you only see each other / and the rest of us can go to hell,” he sings, as the horns come in on cue. “But when you are married, you are married to the whole wide world.” The couple sits with those profound words, and after the driver drops them off, he notes that he’s still not alone. Callahan bookends the song with references to Johnny Cash and Leonard Cohen, two songwriters who fall closer to peers than influences by the year. Maybe the driver is embodying their wisdom, sure, but I like to think he’s turning the radio dial before the couple gets in and after they leave. He isn’t alone, he still has his Cash and Cohen songs. It feels like Callahan is giving listeners one of those songs himself. Three decades on, it’s a revelatory shift for Callahan — that there’s still more world to notice and more experiences to have, so long as we’re open to them.

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‘Pigeons’ Is Bill Callahan at His Best