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Review: William Tyler, 'Modern Country'

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify playlist at the bottom of the page.

William Tyler, <em>Modern Country</em>
/ Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
William Tyler, Modern Country

Nashville instrumental guitarist William Tyler never has to nail down the meaning behind the songs on his new record, because a word never crosses them. But his freedom from explicit meaning is a gift for listeners, as well. These songs stretch out past the limits of most lyrics and approach a rare sense of mystery.

Tyler has made subtle but essential tweaks to his sound since 2013's shambolic Impossible Truth. Modern Country is tighter, richer in production and more focused melodically. It's less Nashville DIY in its aesthetic, a shift heralded by the presence of a full band, his new love of German-sounding synths, and the tasteful inventiveness of Wilco drummer and Tyler tourmate Glenn Kotche. If Tyler has focused his sound and composition, though, he's simultaneously pushed his arrangements to new levels of complexity. "Gone Clear" launches from a tense acoustic number into a hail of bells and guitar tapping. It sounds more like Steve Reich than Leo Kottke, and it reveals both the breadth of Tyler's palette and the deliberateness of his composition.

It seems a fool's errand to write an album about the disappearance of an American ideal. You can imagine all sorts of grandstanding about what we've lost — rhymes about trains and innocence and regression in our politics. Yet this is the project of Modern Country. Tyler wrote it while living in Oxford, Miss., making this his first album not recorded in his home base of Nashville. Like so many records, it's a celebration of a certain vision of America, tinged by a sense of loss. But it also marks a powerful aesthetic contribution to the canon of people making art about this country.

Tyler has provided several commentaries on the record. Last month, he released a trailer. "We stand at the precipice of the twilight of empire," he says in a labored voiceover as images of trains and highways run by. He's offered specific historical inspirations for certain songs, too. The rollicking guitars and softly droning synths of "Kingdom Of Jones" tell the story of Jones County, Miss., which seceded from the Confederacy during the Civil War. The Sky Blue Sky drumming and easy acoustics of "Sunken Garden" recall the sort of garden that flanked early roads in the 1930s South. The title of "Gone Clear" could well refer to America's multifaceted religious history by taking Scientology's term for a type of spiritual purity. "The Great Unwind" roars and unfurls in waves of feedback — all while nodding to the name of George Packer's American history, The Unwinding. These are compelling references. However, they have little to do with the actual accomplishment of Modern Country.

Tyler has captured a sense of ineffable vastness — a sense that lies at the heart of many great works of American art. In House Made Of Dawn, a novel of an estranged Native American man who attempts to reconnect with his vanishing homeland, N. Scott Momaday described a Western valley. "It was almost too great for the eye to hold, strangely beautiful and full of distance," he wrote. "Such vastness makes for illusion, a kind of illusion that comprehends reality, and where it exists there is always wonder and exhilaration."

Here, then, is an illusion. From the instruments and sounds of American alt-rock comes a record that's exactly as grand as it sets out to be. Tyler's record is free and weird, big and wild. In it are expanse, elegy and celebration. Everywhere is wonder.

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