The first thing I notice about William Tyler’s new album “Goes West” is the dazzling artwork. The design by Robert Beatty is both vivid and evocative, drawing us into a world that exists as a metaphorical parallel to Tyler’s music. It could be said that Tyler’s music connects pastoral folk with a refined production and craftsmanship that owes itself to the modern city. Like a surreal painting that incorporates several disparate worlds – indoor/outdoor or body part/landscape – as part of one, so Tyler swirls together a wide realm of sound and experience into his instrumental poems.
The fair thing to say is that “Goes West” sparkles. No, it shimmers. What I mean is that the production is immaculate, every sound in its right place and honed into its tightest, loveliest form. Tyler has obviously leveled up in this manner, finding a territory that exhibits the gloss and sheen of his new home in California. With his eyes set on the emotional core of his music, Tyler has repackaged his roots in the American South in ten glowing tracks, enlisting names like Bill Frisell and Meg Duffy to add understated layers to his sound. The effect is richly and gloriously beautiful, and sometimes plays at the edge of schmaltzy sentiment.
Some of Tyler’s songs are so aching and gushing with emotion that they flirt with Windham Hill territory. If you don’t know the Windham Hill record label, it was one of the pioneers of new age music in the 70s, and would go on to release some of the biggest artists in instrumental music, including George Winston and Jim Brickman, among many others. “Not in Our Stars,” in both title and musical content, inhabits that space carved out by the once massively popular record label. The gentle rocking of the guitar and the romantic, yearning melody work together to manifest that particular childlike spirit of hope and wonder, a sentiment that many new age artists have made their bread and butter.
It’s a space that’s hard to describe, almost as if it were music that, instead of recognizing and journeying through the darkness of humanity, has instead stripped itself of pain and now intends to bathe the listener in waves of sweetness and positivity. In the search for the emotional center of his music, Tyler has unwittingly lost some more complicated emotional depths at the periphery.
The same emotional categorization can apply to “Call Me When I’m Breathing Again.” Tyler almost uncanningly seems to be channeling a little William Ackerman in this song. Soft, understated guitar work paired with a mood of sentimentality and subtle joy is what Ackerman did best, and Tyler serves up a great ode to such work. Though Tyler has always crafted a distinct sense of atmospheric calm in his music, stretching all the way back to his first album “Behold The Spirit,” his most recent efforts seem to be moving slowly toward a more adult contemporary sound. This isn’t a bad trend, though if he’s not careful the nature of his music could begin to move unconsciously towards the stale, lifeless, and the vapid.
The good news is that the movement of music on “Goes West” veers more towards the exaltive, gliding towards what feels like an image of the open sky and the emergence of glorious rays of sun on a wide expanse of land. Informed by the concept of traveling west (both physically and emotionally) evoked by the album’s title, the guitar work works hard to summon the feelings and emotions of a journey, moving your mind through worlds of mood that Tyler has painstakingly built for us.
Though “Goes West” rollicks along in almost uninterrupted beauty through most of its tracklist, it does suffer a bit by not exposing any hints of imperfection or roughness along its edges. By engineering each element of the sound down to the smallest detail, Tyler has lost something of the soul of his music, a depth that is nearly imperceptible to the ear but missing nonetheless. Comparing this album with his earlier efforts, you can hear a little bit more of what has been stripped away. The songs haven’t changed, but the production has shifted towards something smooth and a little-too-squeaky clean.
Closer “Our Lady in the Desert” is the appropriate pastoral meditation to end this album. The religious overtones and buoyant melody serve as the finishing touch on a record that, through every song, demonstrates a guitar craftsman on top of his game. Though “Goes West” flirts with vapid emotional spaces, it’s also a truly accessible and gorgeous guitar meditation from one of folk’s finest players. If you’re looking for an expansive and soothing travel album, look no further.