William Tyler Impossible Truth

[Merge; 2013]

Styles: American landscape music
Others: Daniel Bachman, Lambchop, John Fahey, Reggie Young

I have no idea what the Carter years were like; I was born in 1985, the year after 1984. The year after we got over/past 1984. 2013 is that year in some regards: the year we got over 2012. Either you were a practitioner of pseudo-scientific, misplaced Mayan anxieties or you were a concerned person in a t-shirt on a northwestern February day. Anxieties can and will occur, and for good reason. But what happens when the spaces in time that breed reactionaries subside into anxiety loss? Does the severed dread lead back to the multi-lane freeway? Some are still anxious for good reason; time doesn’t solve problems for us, either going forward or moving backward. Nostalgia as an act is a problematic creation in this way. Are we asking the past to fix our problems?

And to some degree, nostalgia is a condition of that anxiety. However, in music/music criticism, it’s a dirty word, a condition of hipster-retro-(mis)remembrance that passes off the excuse to keep playing that NES over a shiny Xbox 360 (or whatever the fuck is out right now). And to this is some weight: do we really need some Mumford/Lumineer figure telling us what the “authentic” America “used” to be like? Is a steam-powered grill going to work in your day job? Hell, even for myself, watching the 1990s come up with more gloss than dirt has caused me to (occasionally, unfairly) pass off the occasional band or artist.

But life is often like a science fiction film, a good science fiction film, where remnants of the past (often our own present) remain, even just as set pieces. People still drive 20- to 30-year-old cars, live in old buildings, etc., etc. This is the case in music — especially in music. Sure, keep it new, be new, blah blah new blah blah… but don’t actually. A creative condition is set more in the execution of aspects that support an idea, and to what ends make something “creative” rest more on every aspect about the art in question.

In this context, Impossible Truth makes sense to me as a very good album about nostalgia, and not in the way where I feel compelled to criticize it on a “sound-contemporary” basis or on the critical level where I knock people down for fucking with my childhood. It feels less about a specific kind of packaged nostalgia rather than nostalgia itself, a compositional deluge derived from William Tyler’s love of 70s singer/songwriters, a sort of perfect paring in contrast to his own guitar extensive execution: no words means no singer, which also means the carried-over aspects are forced to be executed in phrases and movements. The songs of Impossible Truth move into minor moments from major ones, and visa versa, as if a mood shift were nothing, and much like John Fahey (who is far too easy of a correlation for Tyler, and for which’s sake, I am trying to avoid), the phrases of Tyler’s own chosen past artists are executed by means of saying “Here’s me singing you. I can’t sing like you, but here’s you to me.” To be more specific, Fahey would (as occasionally Tyler does) pick up specific modes of musical phrasing from Mississippi John Hurt, not to attribute to a “blues” phrasing or change, but to the man himself.

But, of course, Tyler knows what he’s doing. As a hired guitar player for the likes of Lambchop, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, and The Silver Jews, his “Americana” quality of musical execution is the kind of thing that would fit in a so called “neo-Americana” landscape. Except that right now, in a space without the backing of an already established artist, it kind of doesn’t fit. Decontexualized from the great yet already established songwriters he’s worked with, his work takes on a different quality that forces its sonic end to justify itself in the abstract. This sounds bad, but for all reasons it is a strength of the album, which brings me back to this “nostalgia” thing.

As somewhat stated above, anxiety produces a condition that leads the way to a nostalgic output. William Tyler tells us in an “album teaser” (to which I’m not sure I fully recommend as an accompaniment to the album) that he was “born in the Twilight of the Carter administration,” to which some would say with some vexation, “The Carter administration had a twilight period? You kidding me?” Of course, we are conditioned to remember the past better than it actually was; it’s a counter reaction to modern and contemporary stress, but by no means does it signify an ill-creative. Much rather, it signifies that the condition can provide a means for individual expression, albeit with much study and practice.

Much of Impossible Truth fixates on an idea and runs its phrasing well over the five-minute mark. Tyler’s compositions tend to be strongest when his own guitar playing takes a side seat to the song as a whole, allowing for simple bass and brass accents to take over while his fingerpicked guitar takes to one side of the ear. The last song, “The World Set Free,” is probably the only one that doesn’t run an idea for its maximum possible length, flirting with what some more technically minded folks would call “range.” The song moves from a sound that Tyler has spent the whole album establishing, a single acoustic guitar phrasing that turns into a very short guitar/drum bashing psyche freak-out, which then transitions into a feedback drone against electronic drums, which then finds Tyler fighting his way through the noise, playing the initial phrase in tremolo in the background until the end. It’s the one song on Impossible Truth that refuses to let you get lost in anything (after a whole album of somewhat clear, long spaces) and by far the strongest in that sense. Personally, it feels like one of the shortest 10-minute songs I’ve heard in awhile, and not in that annoying “prog-rock-change-time-signatures-100-times” kind of way. It’s as fluid as any of the other songs on the album, just injected the wrong way.

But this album is easily taken as it is, a good side portrait of the parts of America that are somewhat still in the throes of modernity (if we all aren’t to some degree). A drive around easily shows the parts that didn’t make it and the parts that aren’t going to make it a much better treatment than this whole “Americana” thing (which I would love to stop using that word). Either we need a new way of addressing the issue of nostalgia or we need to address it for what it is rather than what we want it to be. Conditions are reactionary, artistic expression is the space of the ideas. A ghost town emerges, the past in now, and we are affected.

Links: William Tyler - Merge

Most Read