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William Tyler - Impossible Truth

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Artist: William Tyler

Album: Impossible Truth

Label: Merge

Review date: Apr. 5, 2013

While broadening his horizons on his Merge debut, guitarist William Tyler still falls squarely and quite deliberately into the line of American musicians inspired by John Fahey. His compositions focus less on melody and more on patterns, repetition and rhythm, and Tyler’s proclaimed themes of a mysterious American landscape, fading ghost towns, and mirage-filled deserts reveal a kinship with Blind Joe Death.

These themes are established first and foremost through song titles and album art; this is, after all, an instrumental record. The music, however, consistently corresponds to them, evoking the sweep of vast landscapes, and engaging in sonic mimicry of barely-heard sounds emerging out of the wilderness. These themes and images are, in themselves, rather hackneyed, and doubly so given their obvious imitation of Fahey (the song titles here appear to have been picked from Fahey rejects). But while the thematic might be cliché and uninspired, Tyler’s music isn’t. Impossible Truth is a dense and compelling album, but also one that shows room for him to develop into an even more impressive musician.

Its status as the building block of most of Impossible Truth’s tracks confirms the electric guitar as Tyler’s primary instrument, but he is equally adept as an acoustic player (see the beautiful solo centerpieces, “We Can’t Go Home Again” and “A Portrait of Sarah”) and performs on organ, banjo and vibraphone as well. He’s no solo guitar purist or showy virtuoso, but rather a musician interested in the possibilities of guitar as an expressive instrument capable of creating effects that push concepts like skill and performance to the background. This is not to say that he’s creating ambient music, but rather that he aims for a whole as organic and heterogeneous as the American landscape his titles suggest.

His music is thus most compelling when guitar recedes from a privileged position (even if it is still primary or centered in some sense) and becomes part of a larger whole. The opening title track places a droning 12-string electric guitar against a dense backdrop of bowed bass and pedal steel, with the individual elements at times merging together to the point that they feel like a single instrument. The importance of the holistic also applies to the pacing and structure of Tyler’s invariably lengthy compositions (almost all of them break the 6-minute mark), full of pauses and often arranged in suite-like structures (as on the title track). But more often than not, these structures are not so much dramatic as visual, evoking space through duration, like the slow unfolding of a wide vista.

Never is this clearer than on the album high point and closer “The World Set Free,” which lasts for an epic 10-plus minutes: the track begins with solo acoustic guitar, but gradually electric, pedal steel, trombone and drums creep in, almost undetected. Just as the instrumentation thickens, so does the music itself, passing from Fahey-like patterns to a clear melody, as though identifiable structures were slowly emerging into view from a desolate landscape. The melody itself is then replaced by feedback squall and sputtering drum machines, obscured by clouds and finally fading into the distance.

While this should hardly be taken as a harsh criticism, Impossible Truth is not quite as consistent as it might be. Some of the tracks are less obviously innovative and lack the same sense of vision that marks the best ones. The bluesy solo electric guitar piece “The Geography of Nowhere,” for example, doesn’t go anyplace in particular, living up to its title, while the ambitious “Cadillac Desert” adopts the same formula as the lengthier tracks noted above to considerably lesser effect. But the album is strong throughout, and when Tyler hits his stride, it’s a beautiful thing indeed. Both the epic sweep of his work and its seemingly out-of-time quality make it feel out of place in 2013. While it may be ever-so-slightly pretentious and overreaching (at least when placed alongside the paratextual titles and album art), Impossible Truth has a clarity of aesthetic vision to back this reach up.

By Michael Cramer

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