Modern Country begins with a track titled “Highway Anxiety” that sweeps by like a momentary blink of awareness stretched out to the lengths of infinity, both immediately recognizable and slowly fading into obscurity. It’s the longest (and simplest) song on William Tyler’s latest sonnet to the American countryside, its entirety dedicated to a single loping riff that continually bears into itself, gaining strength in its restatements and evolution until eventually its sense of time becomes nebulous, its drift as much an environment as the landscape that came before it. Tyler’s music has always borne a deep love for the idea of place — specifically the great, mythological West — but Modern Country is his first to understand that relationship through the lens of time, to wrestle with the difficulties of how change can affect that love we carry for certain memories and geographies that haunt our day-to-day lives. Calling it patriotic would be foolhardy; even if Modern Country is as pastoral and sentimental a record as Tyler has made yet, its vision of home comes with the stinging knowledge that the past is a closed door to us, that our endless return to tradition is what ultimately flattens and ambers us into a mere reflection of our environment: unthinking, unmoving, chained to shelter and survival as the only true means of living. Its folk music feels as if it’s from another time, yet when given to us now, it is a reminder from an old soul in a young body of how powerful gazing into history can be, even as it remains eternally severed from who we are now.
Out of all of Tyler’s releases, Modern Country is the least sonically bound to that old spirit of the American Primitive, freely taking on a more urban, full-band approach that lifts some of the pressure off Tyler’s dexterous, roaming fingerpicking technique. And yet that isolation spelled out so celestially by John Fahey all those years ago still informs these songs, their wordless cascade of tensing and resolving chords beckoning to every single piece of music we’ve ever heard in our lives, distilled now into a calm, cleansing breeze. The sun-drenched blear of Impossible Truth has been polished off without fully returning to the echoing bedroom yarn of Behold The Spirit, and the resulting album finds a halfway home somewhere between dusk and dawn, making the album art all the more appropriate. (However, Merge, I beg of you: please stop plastering awkward silhouettes of your newest alt-country signees all over your artwork. This cover would’ve been brilliant had you just let the scenery breathe.) Although it is Tyler’s shortest work to date, its scope is his widest yet, seizing the reigns like a classic Western in search of its farthest horizon — yet the crucial irony here is that Tyler’s path has already been tread by countless others long before he ever set his sights on the open-tuned guitar, the doctrines of country and rock music already a bygone era for those of us born in the advent of digital restructure. Is making old-fashioned music a revolutionary act in this day and age? More importantly, as long as there are artists like Tyler carving humanity out of steel strings and wood, can we ever declare such a form truly dead?
But let’s return to that mystical love of place that Tyler has so openly declared throughout his tenure as a solo artist. The music on Modern Country is distinctly rural in flavor, accentuated by deep sliding guitars (“Albion Moonlight”), light side stick drumming (“Sunken Garden”), and plenty of Tyler’s unmistakable fingerstyle that sits somewhere between ragtime jubilance and classical purity (“Kingdom of Jones”). On “Gone Clear,” he conducts a hymnal sequence of opaque, circular guitar patterns that culminate in a Philip Glass-ian parade of bells, all while never abandoning his own particular sense of adventure and thirst for frontier majesty. This attachment to a certain idea of where we came from (or perhaps where we’re going) may be both powerful and universal, but it forces the question of whether a place in itself is even capable of carrying meaning on its own. As rich as our own histories might be with the hills of where we grew up and the cities we dreamt of escaping to, the lands themselves have never held so much as a passing semblance of essence or beauty compared to our own projections of fertile soul upon them. At the heart of all this empty expanse of country, the often forgotten center of America more akin to a landlocked archipelago than a united core, we find that a place only really bears significance to us as we impress ourselves onto it, our own ideas becoming streams and mountains of thought that may comfort or frighten us as they manifest into a being overwhelmingly more eternal than ourselves.
In reality, our modern impulse of looking back through the annals of time and geography for inspiration has almost everything to do with where we are in the present moment, making Modern Country a particularly apt daydream from William Tyler, both achingly longing and inherently inseparable from its 21st-century origin. Although country and blues music are as far from the spotlight as they’ve ever been (at least in the circles Tyler is playing for these days), they persist on vitally into the future, eulogizing and keeping record of a past that is rapidly disappearing into our rearview, a trail of dust that before long will be indistinguishable from the dark clouds we’ve endeavored to leave behind. There is beauty and anguish to poring through Tyler’s songbook, a reckoning with spirits that refuse to die even as the world spins on furiously and without regard for the passages of humankind not willed or fortunate enough to keep up with the storm. These are stories that will be told as long as there is a soul to tell them, coded through texts becoming ever more arcane, and in translating them back to one another, we can see exactly what we’ve become.