American Cosmic: from heartland soil to the great unknown

July 20, 2016

Words: Jasper Willems

A glimpse into the work of William Tyler, Daniel Bachman and Ryley Walker, a trinity of artists using heartland sensibilities as a launchpad to uncharted domains.

Surely, we’ve all heard the tale of Jack and The Beanstalk in some shape or form. Unlike a lot of fairy tales, this one leaves you ambivalent of who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy. For better or worse, Jack, an English farmer’s boy, is often depicted as the protagonist in popular culture, the underdog. A kid struck by poverty forced into desperation to steal from a powerful and savage giant living in a fortress on top of the clouds.

When the giant finally caught Jack in the act of stealing some precious artifacts, he does the sensible thing: chase the intruder down the giant beanstalk. Without hesitation, Jack chopped down the beanstalk, sending the giant plummeting to his death. When people tell you, to “wake up in the real world, life is not a fucking fairy tale”, bringing up Jack and The Beanstalk might make them think otherwise.

Rest assured, this article isn’t going to be about how Jack and The Beanstalk is some sort of allegory to Western colonialism and capitalism in this dog-eat-dog world. I’ll leave that to someone more qualified understanding of politics and history than myself. The reason I brought up Jack and The Beanstalk isn’t to substantiate our loss of innocence and sense of wonder in the world.

In fact, it’s to reinforce those sentiments. Music, for one has always had that rare ability to augment our daily realities and perceptions. Like roots growing from the soil into a magical beanstalk to the heavens, a trinity of American musicians — William Tyler, Daniel Bachman and Ryley Walker — take bucolic, heartland sensibilities to unexplored new heights.

Let’s start with William Tyler’s new album Modern Country. Obviously, the trailer Tyler made establishes the grounded realism within the fabric of this record. Modern Country consists of seven gleaming guitar-based instrumentals lamenting “the cultural geography of this vanishing America”, as Tyler puts it.

Notice how he calls Modern Country a “love letter” instead of some dour elegy, as Gone Clear‘s immaculate orchestral chimes instill this feeling of marvel and euphoria. Alright, I’m going to digress from my original narrative to gush about this particular track (and hopefully make sense doing so). Gone Clear starts in a fairly familiar pastoral manner, with rustic violin flourishes ushering Tyler’s nimble fingerpicking into the open acres.

The song transpires much like Modern Country‘s album cover, depicting Tyler in this astral state haunting the desolate countryside. Listening to this thing is like your spectral self rising from your corporeal exterior, walking it off thinking it was just a lucid dream and suddenly realize you can transcend the physical world and fly into space. The inherently rootsy intimacy of Tyler’s playing simply becomes a launchpad to a new stratosphere. Gone Clear channels everything from Jim O’ Rourke to Steve Reich… heck, even Brahms (skip to 3:05 and prove me wrong, dangit). Cosmic bliss.

While Modern Country explicitly references both the majesty and fallacy of American life and history, the lack of written word allows the listener’s own imagination to run amok. It’s like an expansive fairy tale of sound, and, after hearing these seven tracks, instills the same satisfaction as finishing a fictional novel. Augmented reality.

Like Tyler, 24-year-old Daniel Bachman’s craft is rooted in traditional fingerpicking, and also, very much informed by incessant travels across the US of A. But that’s pretty much where the comparisons end. Whereas Tyler’s panoramic approach embodies the vastness of your surroundings, Bachman’s blotched, feverish playing strikes as an exploration of the inner psyche.

For someone his age, Bachman has put a lot of miles on his soul. At age 17, he became smitten with the likes of John Fahey, Pentangle and Jack Rose, dropped out of school and started avidly touring across the world. In this interview, Bachman notes his very first ‘official’ tours were especially brutal. But his wanderlust got the better of him doing everything by the rulebook. Giddy and bursting with an abundance raw talent, he grasped all the nuts and bolts on-the-go as he meandered about from gig to gig.

As a result, Bachman’s playing, as knee-jerk and visceral as it sounds, has an impressionistic quality that can (probably) only be achieved through vigorous trial-and-error. His most experimental album Grey-Black-Green (which was recorded on a boombox) sounds like you’re attending a candid emotional broadcast, as Bachman homes in on his emotions with the compulsiveness of someone picking at his own scabs.

Though sonically miles apart, Bachman’s journey is just as immersive as Tyler’s in the sense that there’s no written word to debunk anything. Instead of writing a diary, music is Bachman’s way to archive his experiences traveling as a musician. In an interview with The Fader, Bachman stated that music is what keeps him going today, but eventually he intends to bow out. If he ever gets kids and grandkids, we reckon he’s got quite a few cool stories lined up.

His pal Ryley Walker probably too, if he ever intends to follow suit. But as of now, that doesn’t seem likely. The car accident that left Walker deaf in one ear probably would’ve deterred most people to pursue music any further. Instead, it actually strengthened his fortitude to live life at the fullest. Because it can be taken from you on a whim, something Walker probably realizes by now.

Combining archaic folk balladry with the flighty impetus of jazz music, Walker’s sophomore effort Primrose Green drew favorable comparisons to Tim Buckley and Van Morrison. While it’s a splendid album that was (rather unfairly) ostracized by Pitchfork as “a creative anachronism”, its outline doesn’t do that conclusion any favors.

The album cover shows Walker standing in a bright green meadow, which is sort of the rustic quaint aesthetic we commonly associate with folk music. A rather conservative image, not? Especially of a guy who’s always game to go see some local crust punk band at a basement show after one his gigs. Sure, Ryley Walker is a crafty songwriter and musician, but he’s also the first guy you call if you need someone to do buffoonish party tricks in your music video.

The Halfwit In Me, the resplendent first cut off of upcoming LP Golden Sings That Have Been Sung, finds Walker owning up to his self-deprecating, quirky personality with grace and wit. But for the first time it seems Walker didn’t intuitively lean on his free-wheeling talents, but bended them to his own idiosyncrasies.

When he recorded Primrose Green he didn’t allow himself that luxury, booking studio time in a rush with just sketches of material at his disposal. A situation like that could magnify a proneness to revisiting well-traveled roads. In this recent interview with Uncut, he even calls himself out as “fraud” on guitar, essentially standing on the shoulders of giants.

Like Tyler and Bachman, Walker finally appeals to his own internal logic and his outer limits on his latest LP, lifting time-honored craftsmanship to new cosmic pastures. Standing on the shoulders of giants or planting your own beanstalk might be considered old-fashioned. But learning to marvel at the view below could prompt a clear vision of where to move further beyond.

Ryley Walker, William Tyler and Daniel Bachman will each perform at this year’s Le Guess Who? Festival (10–13 november).