- SPIN Rating:9 of 10
In a recent video trailer for Impossible Truth— William Tyler's second LP under his own name and first for Merge — the Nashville guitar virtuoso waxes poetic about Christmas and air-conditioning, Elvis and Reagan, the end of the world and the frailty of borders. "Our country, like any other country, is an imagined community, a country of illusion," he says, his voice lilting. "We've mutually agreed on terms of geography, history, and identity. But those can change."
That's more of a mouthful than you'll ever hear from the guy in his music, but his instrumental meditations speak to his influences in much the same way: Whether he's channeling John Fahey, Jimmy Page, Sandy Bull, South Asia, or slack-tuned Hawaii, Tyler does so in a way that suggests they're are all of the same transportive, six- to 12-stringed fabric. There are no divisions. We are all islands, but we will all erode. He's a wanderer, but he's no cartographer.
Much of Impossible Truth, its creator says, was inspired by a stack of non-fiction that included apocalyptic reads like Mike Davis' Ecology of Fear and Barney Hoskyns' Hotel California. Though end times are far more difficult to hear in each of the record's eight lengthy compositions, all possess enough of a journey-like arc to suggest miles of iridescent landscape. Twists, turns, hills, and plains: This is cyclical, spiritual, innately visual music, as striking in the background as it is intense on headphones. No one melody or chord change ever chimes quite the same way from one listen to the next. The world as Tyler conjures it could be dead, dying, verdant, or just waking up, but in the "Tangerine"-like shimmer of "Cadillac Desert" and the somersaulting majesty of "Hotel Catatonia," the scenery is never static.
Because although he's stretching traditional, time-tested folk templates culled from around the world and back again, Tyler's vision is both distinctly American and deeply modern. Opening cut "Country of Illusion" finds him fingerpicking his way from an eerie British folk figure to honeyed bluegrass tones to a stretch of melody just before the five-minute mark that demands to be sung. Pedal steel yawns, a double bass thumps, and a wide array of light and (sometimes) dramatic movement resonates throughout, particularly in those all-too-important spaces between each note. Additional accompaniments — cello, drums, brass — segment and augment in wonderfully subtle ways.
For years, Tyler has been playing alongside people with discerning ears and differing needs: Will Oldham, David Berman, Candi Staton, Kurt Wagner, Rhys Chatham. And though he's mastered a dizzying number of instruments and styles and modes, he's at his best when he moves to erase differences in vocabulary — when he sounds free. One could catch glimpses of it on 2011's Behold the Spirit, but here he really gets going. On "Geography of Nowhere," he warms up with a dark, Spanish-inflected classical workout before sharing the most beautiful passage of guitar-borne melody you'll hear this year. He flashes past in the acoustic blur of "A Portrait of Sarah," slows down so that you might follow him through the elegiac climb of "Last Residents of Westfall," and leads you through a wash of psychedelic noise and fingerpicked fog in the coda of closer "The World Set Free." He takes off and never looks back.