There’s something vaguely unsettling about the sheer amount of sky looming over the open road the farther west one travels in the United States. Leaving behind tree- and city-lined stretches of highway, one is met with nothing but a seemingly endless expanse of sky stretching well beyond the horizon. In this immensity it’s easy to feel diminished, humbled or even overwhelmed. That it’s an illusion brought on by the lack of readily identifiable landmarks to serve as points of reference for time, space and distance seems of little consequence; out west, everything just feels bigger.
“Highway Anxiety,” the first track on William Tyler’s latest exploration of instrumental Americana, captures this rolling sense of wonder perfectly, easing through the long, flat stretches of road occasionally dotted with views of distant mountain ranges and towering clouds. It’s an awe-inspiring experience that deserves a certain amount of reverence and contemplative respect, something Tyler seems well aware of in his treatment of both the music as it gradually unfolds and land that surrounds him. Like a long drive, Modern Country unfolds at its own pace, never rushing, always taking its time to get where it ultimately feels compelled to go.
While any instrumental acoustic guitar record will inevitably find itself compared to the work of the genre’s godfather, John Fahey, Tyler puts his own distinct voice into these tracks, imbuing them with a sense of forward momentum that serves as the aural equivalent of the open road. Where others tend to wander, Tyler’s final destination is always clear, if not the route used to get there. It’s in this structured wandering that he evokes the spirit and feel of travel, exploration and self-reflection. Modern Country is designed to serve as the soundtrack to the contemplative physical as well as metaphorical journey based in a sense of wanderlust.
Using this theme as a jumping off point, “Kingdom of Jones” knowingly teases “Country Roads” during its closing moments, utilizing its familiar melody as repeated mantra for the tireless traveler. It’s a comforting, familiar moment that helps center the listener, returning focus through the use of the recognizable to aid in easing back to reality.
“Gone Clear,” with its densely clustered sixteenth notes, is the most reminiscent of Fahey in its meditative quality. Built around a drone, Tyler relies on a modal, vaguely Eastern melody that remains a slow burn throughout the whole of its six minutes-plus running time before embarking on several more involved passages that eventually circle back to the main theme. As with much of the rest of the album, it possesses a hypnotic quality not unlike the effect of driving mile after mile with the lane lines and vast, expansive grandeur of the Western United States serving as your only tie to reality.
Closing track “The Great Unwind” quite literally employs its title as it unfurls and sprawls across the speakers, ebbing and flowing as Tyler’s heavily distorted guitar roams through a landscape dotted with decaying distortion and faint traces of melody, ultimately ending in a complete and total surrender to the sound of the natural world. Alone with the birds, frogs and insects populating some unnamed forest, Tyler reenters with smoldering, almost elegiac take on the hallmarks of country music.
Using an ethereal steel guitar and subtly twanged electric guitar, he establishes a mood that neatly summarizes the music’s origins in a very specific sound will simultaneously freeing it to explore a larger space. The album title then is just as much a reference to the country music as a genre as the open road, the highway saturated modern country and its limitless potential for adventure and exploration. Modern Country is an album full of experiences to be treasured long after the inevitable return home.
Artist: William Tyler
Album: Modern Country
Label: Merge Records
Release Date: June 3, 2016