28 Jun 2016

Modern Country by William Tyler

From The Sampler, 7:30 pm on 28 June 2016
William Tyler

William Tyler Photo: Supplied

Nick Bollinger reviews a saga without words from guitarist William Tyler.

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It seems odd to say it, but arguably the most epic tale I’ve heard this year is on a record with no words.

William Tyler is a guitar player - an extremely good one. Just in terms of technique, he’s phenomenal, moving around the instrument in a variety of tunings and fingering styles, from a deft clawhammer picking reminiscent of John Fahey, to gritty electric plucking in the manner of Ry Cooder.

He’s in his mid-thirties, but has been a presence on the alternative scene of his Nashville home since his teens, playing in groups like Lambchop and Silver Jews, and on albums by everyone from Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy to Candi Staton.

But his solo records are where he sets out his own musical vision, and it’s an expansive one. Modern Country is his most expansive yet, both sonically and conceptually. The title suggests multiple meanings: on a regional level it might refer to Tyler’s Nashville base, the cradle of ‘modern country’ music. Yet while his music, like Nashville country, is connected to all kinds of early rural sounds, it is also consciously modern, in the manner of a 20th century abstractionist or stream-of-consciousness poet.

It would be easy to say it sounds like the soundtrack to a road movie, and much of it does. But this music doesn’t need cameras or a narrative. It is its own movie, and the way Tyler uses sounds and motifs creates a narrative as strong, in its own way, as any screenplay.

The album begins with a simple eight-bar melody, traced on an electric guitar. If the tune seems familiar, it is a close relative of the theme Bob Dylan recorded for Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, which Dave Rawlings reframed last year for his epic ballad ‘The Trip’ on his Nashville Obsolete album. Wherever this melody rears its head, it always seems to depict a journey, and always through a mythic American landscape. But Tyler’s landscape isn’t the wild west of Billy the Kid or the world on the rails described in Rawlings’ song. This is modern country. And the old theme lingers like a ghost of America’s past, while Tyler’s traveller passes through an apocalypse of dying cities and fossil-fuelled destruction. At least, that’s what I hear; and I believe that’s what Tyler meant when he named his version of this tune ‘Highway Anxiety’, though I like to think the music would have provided me with those images anyway.

While he invites you to think of this music as country, Tyler’s compositions actually have as much in common with modern classical: think of the way Steve Reich or Philip Glass use repetition, and the majestic minimalism of Tyler’s music starts to make sense. Old folk songs are the building blocks of many of his pieces: sometimes a whole tune, other times just a fragment, like the figure from ‘Wildwood Flower’ that is the jumping-off point for the tune he calls ‘Kingdom Of Jones’.

William Tyler’s Modern Country is an ambitious album – a concept album without words – and he carries it off gloriously. Did I say masterpiece? Eulogising the guitarist Jerry Garcia in 1996, no less a wordspinner than Bob Dylan said: “There's a lot of spaces and advances between the Carter Family, Buddy Holly and say, Ornette Coleman, a lot of universes, but he filled them all.” Remarkably, I think those words might apply here too.

Songs featured: Gone clear, Albion Moonlight, I’m Gonna Live Forever, Highway Anxiety, Kingdom Of Jones.

Modern Country is available on Merge Records.