“It’s a weird record. I don’t even know if I like it.” That’s Ryley Walker speaking of Deafman Glance, his fourth record and his furthest departure yet from the neo-English folk revival sound with which he has been most associated. For listeners who have followed Walker from his debut record on hyper-retro label Tompkins Square, Deafman Glance will register as a seismic stylistic shift, and one that may shake off some among those longtime listeners who expect him to stay a course charted by his early impressions.
Walker has always taken inspiration from England’s folk-revival bands, appreciating their airy instrumentation and jazz-inflected flourishes. Both of his previous releases for Dead Oceans, Primrose Green and Golden Sings That Have Been Sung evoked the progressive English folk of Pentangle and John Martyn. If there are echoes of the 1960’s to be heard on Deafman Glance, they are of the transition period into the 1970s, where the psychedelic elements of the folk revival give way to heavier, progressive experiments. One hears elements of the American iconoclast Tim Buckley’s jazz experimentations giving way to the heavy improvisations of his Lorca-era work.
Opener “In Castle Dome” sets the unhurried pace of the album, its slow build a character shared by most of Deafman Glance‘s songs. Flute and spare electronics feature prominently, but the guiding instrument throughout is Walker’s guitar, which he plays with a mixture of ambient sparseness and progressive bombast. There are elements of making-it-up-as-we-go throughout this record, but the end results sometimes lack the freshness or satisfaction of informed improvisation. Sometimes a map is necessary; these songs have a tendency to drift without making a strong impression or to shift suddenly without payoff.
“Can’t Ask Why” explodes into a prog-like guitar jam that, rather than surprising, registers as an afterthought. “Opposite Middle”, one of the more compact among the album’s nine cuts, is also more successful for its brevity, though Walker sings with a similar tone and meter on the following track “Telluride Speed”, which gets weighed down by a plodding folk-prog mix. “Expired” is similar, opening with slow, whisper-singing then building into angular compartments, changing tone and structure without identifiable purpose.
Deafman Glance is a weird record. I’m not sure I like it, but I have a feeling I’ll return to it later. It is Walker’s least accessible album, but it also may prove in time to be an important stepping stone to the true Ryley Walker. As enjoyable listening experiences as Primrose Green and Golden Sings are, their character tends to be defined in relation to their influences and the classics they evoke. Deafman Glance points a way towards a Ryley Walker who can only be spoken of as himself. This is an album of departure and if Walker hasn’t yet settled on a destination, he at least signals a promise of newness and singularity on whatever horizon he eventually chooses as his landing place.