William Tyler continues to plumb the complexities of the American identity on ‘Goes West’, perhaps his most subtly hopeful release to date
January 25, 2018
The last time I heard something I felt like I deeply needed to hear, it was the Go-Betweens’ painfully beautiful break-up album, 16 Lovers Lane. Grant McLennan and Robert Forster’s lyrics and perfect musical arrangements paint a more complete picture of love and loss than I have heard on any other pop music release. I remember turning it on for the first time those years ago, at that point at least a year removed from my own heartbreak and still wildly uncertain about the things going on inside me—not to mention how they were manifesting. The Go-Betweens opened my heart’s latch and I hung on each syllable, feeling all of my emotions unfurl before me in real time. It was an intoxication, an exorcism, an awakening, a frenzied release, amplified by the resounding awareness that I was engaging with something that I was always supposed to encounter. The world seemed to have chosen this moment and this music only for me, and when it presented the thing, I latched onto it with obsessive commitment.
How can a wordless album accomplish essentially the same thing?
William Tyler has operated within the mystery of this question for some time now. 2019’s Goes West is the guitarist’s fourth studio release since 2010 and his third with the titans of Merge, and it arrives as a deeply rich, beautifully subdued culmination of the musician’s decade-long contemplative American odyssey. From his debut Behold the Spirit to now, Tyler has offered a complex arc that works to define many of the characteristics of this place and its modern identity; there is an exhilarating freshness everywhere, but behind it is a thick melancholy, an intense longing to identify and protect the beauty of this world from its own shortcomings. He ruminates on this identity through instrumental arrangements driven by shimmering guitars, fingerpicked and thumb-droned to carve out, somehow, one of the most unique voices in modern American music without offering a single word.
Since embarking on his solo career, Tyler has committed himself to holding a mirror up to the face of his neighbors, no matter how far removed from him they are. He understands the interconnectedness of this century and the wild promise it offers. He communicates his faith in that promise through the traditions that have followed its evolution, arming his lush musical style with the structural cornerstones of country and blues, the inescapable progress of work and struggle, the encompassing essence of hope in the ones next to him, and a relentless belief in the one within.
Goes West makes good on this decade of promise. His first record with a full band behind him is surprisingly perhaps Tyler’s quietest release. This song cycle finds the composer engaging deeply with the subtleties of both his medium and his subject. Like much of Ry Cooder’s poetic guitar work, Goes West elaborates on those subtleties with beautiful mastery, a tone poem that whispers its worth into the listener’s ear as if to say, things will be better, look at all the good you and I have already done, listen to it growing, taking the place of dark things whenever it can, search for it every moment you can.
I listened to Goes West before I did anything else today. I drove to work and bathed in the gift of knowing, once again, that the world had chosen a new moment only for me. Wordlessly, William Tyle told me a universe of things that I needed to hear this morning. In “Fail Safe,” a rich guitar flourish opens up to a highway and succumbs to the abandon, the childish wanderdrunk that accompanies the road to a faraway destination. “Call Me When I’m Breathing Again” plays just like sadness that you can’t name, the kind you can only feel and know deeply, the kind that never leaves but only becomes more manageable. The stunning “Rebecca,” very possibly my favorite track of Tyler’s, is a universe of suggestion. Sparse pianos chime like hints of warmth amid frozen memories; Tyler’s guitar plays a melody kindled by longing and accentuated by its own resolve to love, despite things.
William Tyler’s music is one of this century’s greatest treasures. For Americans young and old, his music should come to you as a beacon of genuineness, and a shield against its opposite. Tyler has never been one to force himself on his neighbors; his music quietly knocks at the door, knocks that seem to tell you themselves that a friend is calling. Accept his wordless invitation, open your ears, and enter into one of the most meaningful conversations you can have through modern popular music.