On his new solo album (recently released by Merge), the Lambchop fretboard maestro elevates the art of picking.
BY JOHN SCHACHT
Journey through the American West and you’ll likely succumb to the romantic spell cast by its natural beauty. After the monotony of the table-flat plains states, the vistas expand with cinematic grandeur: geologic eons manifest in striking mountain ranges, primeval forests, desert moonscapes and rugged coastlines; the sky deepens to a richer blue by day and unveils galactic light shows at night; sporadic small towns still feel like frontier outposts.
Nature appears indomitable and man insignificant in the face of its relentless grind. Even in the West coast population centers, the seasonal firestorms, floods and earthquakes suggest man’s tenure here is merely on loan. In fact, probe beneath the surface, as guitar whiz William Tyler does on his stunning new set of instrumentals, Impossible Truth, and the fragility of man’s footprint becomes the defining character in the story of civilization’s push westward.
On a recent road trip out West, the Nashville native’s reading list included Mike Davis’ brilliant examination of Los Angeles’ ongoing war against nature, Ecology of Fear, social critic William Kunstler’s seminal book about urban sprawl, Geography of Nowhere, and, as a counter-weight, rock journalist’s Barney Hoskyns’ history of Laurel Canyon in the 70s, Hotel California: Singer-Songwriters & Cocaine Cowboys In The L.A. Canyon.
On those long stretches between gigs and frontier outposts, Tyler sensed a theme emerge across those disparate pages. He decided it was something worth exploring as the follow-up set of instrumentals to 2010’s Southern-themed Behold the Spirit.
“I was reading Hoskyns in context with these other pretty heavy non-fiction books about social science and urban theory and environmentalism, and something about that book resonated with me,” Tyler says. “I am actually really into music of that time period, but the un-sustainability of that whole scene, it just seemed to me to be a parallel to the un-sustainability that Mike Davis was writing about when he’s talking about Los Angeles.”
Tyler links Davis’ combination of urban theory, social science and left-wing politics in his analysis of Southern California history – Davis covered similar turf in City of Quartz and Under the Perfect Sun – with the feeling many Southerners, including Tyler, have toward their own history. It was that latter idea that inspired Behold the Spirit. Now, inspired by the West’s stunning beauty, Tyler wanted to make a decidedly Western record – so he started with Davis.
“He writes about his home region in a way that he obviously has a lot of love for it but is aghast at what’s happened to it,” Tyler says. “That’s something a lot of progressive Southern writers do at the same time – they love everything that’s great about growing up here, but obviously you’re horrified by some of it.”
Tyler found this Western subject matter more pertinent than ever, especially since popular culture’s retro wheel has turned a kind eye on an era that just a few years ago, he says, was considered “totally uncool.” The 33-year-old noted the reappraisals that Fleetwood Mac, Joni Mitchell, 70s fashion, and films like Heaven’s Gate and Two-Lane Blacktop have recently enjoyed.
“There’s this huge wave of nostalgia for that period of the ‘70s right now, culturally,” says Tyler. “I think maybe it’s just because our culture has such a lack of deliberation and a lack of everything that existed back then. So there’s this reach for this imagined community of time where that kind of music and those kind of movies were being made.”
All these elements went into the eight instrumental tracks that form Impossible Truth’s impressively diverse palette. Tyler even calls it his 70s-flavored “singer-songwriter record; it just doesn’t have any words” in Merge Records’ one-sheet. Making fecund use of open tunings to highlight the guitar’s drone-like qualities and layered melodies, Tyler’s songs tell their own stories.
With help from Chris Scruggs’ upright bass and Luke Schneider’s pedal steel, “Country of Illusions” stacks melodies atop each other to recreate a mirage-like atmosphere that oscillates between romantic western ideals and more ominous Middle Eastern-sounding fever dreams; on “Cadillac Desert,” Tyler contrasts blasted-out bass fuzz with watery vibraphone tones to tell the story of California’s water wars. He turns to a mix of acoustic and electric guitars to create the sonorous “We Can’t Go Home Again,” and on probably the most technically challenging guitar picker’s display, makes one acoustic sound like dozens on “A Portrait of Sarah” as it winds through Jimmy Page 12-string riffs, Tacoma-style textures and an ultra-quick foot-stomping rag.
Like the best instrumental music, Tyler leaves the subjective details to the listener and increases their engagement with his music. Switching tunings, he says, “is almost like literally speaking a different language with someone in conversation.” He concedes that part of that is pushback against the armies of singer-songwriters that populate his hometown’s clubs.
“Trust me, if you live in Nashville, you hear a lot of bad lyrics all the time,” Tyler says with a weary chuckle. “People are so used to going somewhere and being presented with this person you’ve never met before telling you these really personal things, with a guitar, and the narratives are always very explicitly personal. And I think part of what I do is a reaction against that because I wanted the music to conjure up images for people, but to let that be a little more subjective.”
To that effect, Tyler relies on the song titles – which include nods to Kunstler (“Geography of Nowhere”), Marc Reisner’s non-fiction classic about the West’s water wars (“Cadillac Desert”) and Hoskyns (“Hotel Catatonia”) —and album art to help form a picture for the listener. But none of it is mandatory to enjoying what Tyler does here.
M.C. Taylor, the leader of North Carolina’s Hiss Golden Messenger with whom Tyler has toured, loves what the guitarist does enough to give him a starring role on Haw, HGM’s latest upcoming work of classic ‘70s-flavored songwriting.
“William will worry a phrase—some tangled chordal wormhole—until you are certain it’s all that exists,” Taylor says. “He’ll take you over the stiles, he’ll love you up and down, and then he’ll make you cry for the world and what we’ve done to it. Willy T’s got the vampire blues. And there’s only one like him.”
For most, Tyler first drew attention as the precocious and wise-beyond-his-years 20-year-old guitar ace in Kurt Wagner’s Lambchop collective. There, he proved equally adept at classic country music fills as he was at mood-complementing soundscapes and soul-flavored riffs. The son of a professional Nashville songwriter, Tyler got to work with another of the town’s musical outliers, the Silver Jews’ David Berman. (He’s also appeared on records by Charlie Louvin, Bonnie “Prince” Billy and Wooden Wand, among others.) Both seasoned writers had their effect on Tyler, especially in their deliberate approach to songwriting. The trombones that help build Impossible Truth’s epic 10-minute closer “The World Set Free” could’ve come straight off Lambchop’s Nixon, for instance.
“Spending time with the melodies, the way somebody like David or Kurt probably spends a lot of time with the words, it makes a difference once the work is finished because people do remember the melody,” he says. “When you don’t have words, you need that.”
As he stepped out from the shadows of those songwriters, Tyler released one instrumental LP —2009’s Deseret Canyon— under the moniker Paper Hats, before making his mark under his own name with Behold the Spirit. Tyler may have come in at the tail end of the instrumental guitar renaissance, led by expert pickers like Jack Rose, Steve Gunn and Six Organs of Admittance’s Ben Chasney, but his many influences make his LPs sound unlike anyone else. Tyler is quick to point out, too, that he owes less to John Fahey and his Tacoma school acolytes than he does to Richard Thompson, Chet Atkins and Jim O’Rourke.
The results are what matters, of course, and these sound so organic they feel like a part of nature rather than a depiction of it. Because of that, Impossible Truth seems built of the same big-picture thoughtfulness that, like all transcendent works of art, will outlast the folly of our attempts to bend nature to our will. In a word—sustainability.
[Photo Credit: Will Holland]