There was a time in the mid-’70s when solo instrumental guitar players suddenly became all the rage. Well, certainly in England they did. In my ever disintegrating memory, it was John Williams and Julian Bream who were responsible for the incursion of strange-looking men, sitting on stools earnestly plucking away on the guitar to songs with no words (songs, with no words! What on earth was going on?) beamed into my living room via the flickering black-and-white television in the corner. And then just as suddenly as they appeared, they were gone. No longer the ‘in thing’, instead we had someone called Johnny Rotten and bands like the Clash. Bands with guitarists who wielded and played their guitars as if they were going to smash you over the head with them rather than play them for your musical entertainment, which did actually happen from time to time. You can see why we were so confused as kids.
There has been a creeping reemergence of the solo/duo guitar player on the hip young music listener lately (and old, not-so-hip folk like me). Gabriela and Rodriguez arguably led the charge with their ferocious flamenco/punk/metal hybrid, redefining what could be achieved by amplifying acoustic guitar and letting go and breaking, rather than being constrained by, the seemingly limited scope of most instrumental acoustic guitar players, certainly those trying to carve a space in the popular music field.
Into this space has meandered William Tyler. Nashville-born Tyler has earned his chops playing with a diverse range of musicians — Will Oldham, Silver Jews, Candi Staton, Kurt Wagner, and Rhys Chatham, to name a few — but it is on his solo work that he has emerged to become arguably the best, and certainly the most interesting, guitar player currently plying his trade.
Impossible Truth was the result of Tyler’s relationship with two books whilst traversing the Midwest of America. The books in question were British music historian Barney Hoskins’ recounting of the early ’70s hedonistic and creatively fertile period in Laurel Canyon, Hotel California, and Marxist social historian Mike Davis’ apocalyptical rendering of Los Angeles, The Ecology of Fear. These historical reflections, and the retelling of Californian life and culture, has clearly had an effect on the music created by Tyler for this album.
And yet for all the deep rootedness of Tyler and Los Angeles, of Americana, in this album, Impossible Truth’s opening track “Country of Illusion” very much belongs to the British Folk tradition of the late ’60s/early ’70s with its pastoral style reminiscent of Nick Drake or Richard Thompson. About as far removed from LA as one could wish to imagine! But as the song develops, steel pedal effects comes in which instantly relocates us to Laurel Canyon, and then, at the 5.40 mark, comes a devastating breakdown, as the song winds down to a near end before majestically rising again, waves of beauty washing over you, pulsating guitar, thumping double bass, widescreen vistas, nine minutes of expansive, glorious music.
“Geography of Nowhere” is more shimmering, Spanish-inflected, southern gothic playing. Building and building, wave after wave of guitar, of perfectly restrained, beautifully realized, and utterly mesmerizing music. “We Can’t Go Home Again”’s breathtaking dexterity, “Hotel Catatonia”’s complex chord changes, and the sublime, eastern-flavored, Beatlesque, ten-minute closer “The World Set Free” all point to an incredible musician, not just in his playing, but with his understanding of music and its emotive qualities.
Tyler’s finger plucking and textured songwriting take the listener back to the heady days of Laurel Canyon and the almost never-to-be-repeated group of songwriters from this era — Crosby, Stills and Nash, Joni Mitchell, Gram Parsons, Neil Young, all are invoked through the music of William Tyler as he takes on an exploration of this mythic place, but he invokes them very much in the present, for Tyler is no mere purveyor of nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake. Rather, he understands the past, is sympathetic to its heritage and reimagines it for the present.
This is a brilliant album created by a music virtuoso that will cement Tyler’s solo reputation earned from his 2010 debut, Behold the Spirit. In an age of immediacy and short attention spans, taking the time out to listen to a solo guitar album might be alien for some, but believe me, at no time during its near 54 minutes will you find your mind wandering or your hand twitching for the fast-forward button; you’ll be too immersed in the music for that.