Walker’s admirable approach is more appreciated than enjoyed.
Over four solo albums in as many years, Chicago guitarist and singer-songwriter Ryley Walker has gone from Takoma-influenced finger-style guitarist to neo-British folk rocker to exploratory post-rock and now a sort of slowcore/post-rock/prog folk amalgamation. It’s been a series of wild stylistic shifts in a very short period of time that begs the question: Is this an artist exploring his options by following his creative whims wherever they may lead, or is he still looking for his true voice? It may be the latter. He sounded like Bert Jansch, John Martyn, et. al. on 2015’s Primrose Green, while the following year’s Golden Sings That Have Been Sung found him adopting a more traditional Chicago indie rocker voice well-suited to his more exploratory music. Now, with Deafman Glance, we’re presented with yet another vocal iteration landing somewhere between Sea Change-era Beck and ‘90s Mark Kozelek (you know, back when he actually sang…) It’s hard not to see these various guises as affectations designed to complement the stylistic shifts; it’s almost like he’s making a conscious effort to have each album sound like the work of a distinct individual rather than the work of the same prolific songwriter.
While the jump from Primrose Green to Golden Sings was the most jarring stylistically, Deafman Glance is hardly a mere continuation of the latter. For starters, the acoustic guitar with which Walker initially made a name for himself is largely absent – only the brief instrumental “Rocks on a Rainbow” recalls where he began and subsequently returned on his recent pairings with Bill MacKay – replaced by a measured electric guitar. He also slows things down in the extreme, with opening track “In Castle Dome” progressing at a snail’s pace, firmly placing the album in the after-hours somnambulant camp. The abrupt downshift carries through much of the album in both tone and timbre.
There are moments, however, when the music unexpectedly explodes with an avant garde aggression and meter changes generally reserved for prog-rock. The six-minute “22 Days” follows a suite-like progression that touches on jazz fusion, minimalist singer-songwriter fare and jam band exploration. There are even moments in which Walker comes off as a more avant garde/prog version of Jethro Tull (“Telluride Speed,” and not just for its use of flute). It’s a strange comparison, but not that far removed from where he’s been (at least geographically and chronologically). Walker’s music has always had something of a wandering, contemplative nature, but here he pulls out all the stops with tempo shifts, sharp dynamic contrasts and unison rhythmic passages that sound like the post-rock scene for which Chicago has long been known.
At nine songs in just over 40 minutes, Deafman Glance neither overstays its welcome nor leaves the listener wanting to hear more. Still, Walker’s admirable approach is more appreciated than enjoyed, with no songs really standing out even after repeated listens. By no means difficult, this is music for musicians more than a general listenership. Which is fine as Walker is clearly very talented and capable of exploring different creative avenues. But by album’s end and taken in the context of his catalog, it’s hard to know who the real Ryley Walker is. Maybe that’s the point: he’s merely a conduit for some greater swirling miasma of creativity. Where he heads next is anyone’s guess.