Critical illustrations of Ryley Walker’s sound usually dip into the same reservoir of pastoral iconography: open meadows, open skies, barbed wire, wind, sunlight that cuts through trees and settles on the backs of new lovers. This may be influenced by the Astral Weeks-inspired, mystic-troubadour cover of his sophomore album Primrose Green, or by his resplendently mellowed-out arrangements, or by his lyrical infatuation with edenic couples walking “two by two”, summer dresses clinging to skin, and Midwestern, faux-bucolic landscapes, but it’s not too far off the mark. Thanks to Walker’s ponderous finger-picked guitar style and lithe, warm-throated vocals, his sound seems to be inextricable from a certain folk-jazz pastoralism, a sonic worldview defined by basses walking along riversides and notes drifting through tall-grass prairies.
However, on Golden Sings That Have Been Sung, Walker’s third LP and first with producer-cum-Wilco veteran LeRoy Bach, this worldview shifts into new territory. Inspired by his upbringing in Chicago and the homegrown artists he imbibed there, the record represents, not a 180-degree turn from last year’s Primrose Green, but a step closer to his roots and the brimming concrete wilderness where they seized their length.
Never one to hold his influences close to the chest, Walker parades them out unabashedly here, concocting a technicolor amalgam of smokey, cellar-club jazz and gypsy-traveler European folk. Van Morrison, Tim Buckley, Mike Cooper, and Bert Jansch of Pentagle fame, as well as Windy City cult acts like Gastr del Sol and Tortoise, all float through the marrow of these songs. But unlike what happened on Primrose Green, these influences don’t dictate his songwriting; they guide it, urge it onward toward a new cohesiveness: Golden Sings… isn’t the work of an expert musician aiming for polished pastoral pastiche, for a predetermined tableau of rolling-down-the-hillside sonics and sunny moods, it’s the work of a budding artist intent on finding a voice somewhere between ancestral piety and unencumbered poetic invention.
In “The Roundabout”, perhaps Walker’s most fully-realized composition to date, Walker imagines a Middle America dive bar where neighborhood celebrities and out-of-town ciphers — lovers, strangers, siblings, rivals — gather to trade stories and search for flesh that reciprocates their needs. It’s a fictive space not unlike Billy Joel’s microcosmic tavern from “Piano Man”, but, here, there’s no preternatural talent to lift everyone’s spirits; Walker is just like the figures he sings about: a bystander, a dreamer, a wandering soul with tobacco on his breath and a vanishing paycheck in his pocket.
Over a featherlight guitar twirl and electric keyboard shimmer that, together, reify that transitory bliss after a first drink with a would-be lover, the story unfolds, but it’s not a story that Walker has any control over. Throughout, he interrupts himself — “My credit is quite shit”, “I think my dad wanted a daughter” — as if his memories are bumping into and coalescing with his thoughts. The result is less a narrative than it is a patchwork of back-of-the-bar observations, off-the-cuff ruminations, and asides about the various woes and glories of urban anonymity. Beneath it all though, a fierce swelling of loneliness and hope that Walker expresses but that everyone experiences, there’s a desperate desire to find an earth-shattering love in a perfectly familiar place: “Will you love me at the roundabout? / You can find me at the roundabout.”
Every track here offers evidence of Walker’s prodigious talent: his effortless guitar work, his casual yet striking lyricism. “I Will Ask You Twice”, for instance, is a gone-before-you-know-it wisp of enchanting melodic conviction and heavy-hearted romanticism. Just over two minutes long, it ends just as the curt truth of its subject matter emerges before you: here, a man is putting all of his worldly faith in a woman that may not love him in return. “The Halfwit in Me”, the LP’s expansive opener, is the aural equivalent of an early morning walk down unfamiliar streets, past silent homes and shut curtains, when someone has been on your mind all night and the only thing left to do is move. “A Choir Apart” casts some of Walker’s most poetically abstruse lyrics over an unyielding bass drum rumble.
“Sweet Satisfaction”, one of the standout tracks from Primrose Green, revolved around a constant assertion of emotional abundance. “I can be your love / I can be your sweet satisfaction, babe”, Walker sang, his voice both a demand to be heard and a Morrison-like yelp at the firmament, and with each successive articulation of this phrase, his point became clearer: take my love, I am overflowing with it, take it and nourish yourself. On Golden Sings…, this assertion is inverted. “I’m no easy meadow / Yeah, there’s no water to drink,” he sings on the slow-burn jazz ballad “Funny Thing She Said”, confessing his love and his lack of love to give at the same time, his inability to provide the satisfaction that his lover so feverishly craves.
This level of emotional complexity pervades the record. While his lyrical flourishes are at times sloppy or overly opaque (“My word is divine / I control the weather”), Walker challenges himself to explore new sonic terrains and poetic depths on Golden Sings…, and this sense of striving — for a sound both indebted to and beyond his forebears — is present throughout the LP. Elegantly composed and immaculately constructed, these are songs that conjure up more than an image of an open field awaiting a lover’s passage or a cityscape laden with crushed spirits; they conjure up a picture of a vibrant mind with an old soul — a mind, that is, tucked neatly inside Walker’s skull.