William Tyler’s fourth record celebrates a vanishing America.
William Tyler’s fourth record, Modern Country, celebrates a vanishing America: The AM radio stations, dirt roads, rickety bait and tackle shops, suspect greasy spoons and locales marked only by rusty signs and a collection of ramshackle houses along a country highway. It’d be cliché to say that these are mere indicators of decay or categorize them simply as indicators of character. Instead, these are matters of history, yours and ours, and maybe, if they survive a little while longer, they can teach us something about the future. Tyler tells these stories without words, creating the moods and images with his guitars—acoustic and electric. His lyrical lines and rhythms seem to belong to another time, one where Jim Hall and Leo Kottke sit side-by-side, finding new notes and tonalities by the measure.
The opening “Highway Anxiety” is a dusky photograph of the empty streets and boarded windows that creep like kudzu into our small towns. But instead of becoming a eulogy for this way of life, Tyler finds the beauty in the everyman who stays behind, who resists the cruel outcomes of progress and survives with his eye cast toward a better time. “I’m Gonna Live Forever (If It Kills Me)” isn’t as remarkable for the images it conjures and imaginations it stirs as much as it is for the from-the-heavens playing our artist delivers via his axe. Tyler’s mastery of composition and playing, always evident on past releases, reaches a new high here as he finds hooks and harmonies that transcend the boundaries of both genre and emotion.
Sometimes the predictably mixed emotions that our lives and times can evoke are splayed out in the same breath: Witness “Kingdom of Jones,” which lilts like a folk tune most of the time but takes a turn here or there into the foreboding, carrying an awareness that the good times might really be over for good. “Albion Moonlight” features some subtle slides and sly glances toward the blues without ever fully becoming part of that idiom. Those thinking that Tyler only serves up songs for the wood and steel set need only hear the rattle and hum of his amp there and on the closing “The Great Unwind” to get a true sense of how far his vision can reach.
The record contains no fewer than three pieces bound to become staples of Tyler’s oeuvre, the aforementioned “I’m Gonna Live Forever,” “Kingdom of Jones” and “Gone Clear,” each bound to become the kind of tune guitar pickers try to tear apart on their own only to discover that their guitars don’t quite have the same notes.
He’s helped along at times by Wilco’s Glenn Kotche, Hiss Golden Messenger’s Phil Cook and Jim O’ Rourke collaborator Darin Gray. These collaborative touches are delicate and deft and none of the players announces themselves in a way that ever overtakes the song as Tyler has conceived it.
Taken together with his last outing, Impossible Truth, Modern Country shows that William Tyler has indeed arrived.