There are, likely, three ways people would have discovered William Tyler thus far. One, they could have randomly chanced upon a live set by him and been astounded by his incredible level of talent and craft. Two, they read a review of his first album under his own name, Behold the Spirit, saw references to John Fahey, James Blackshaw and Jack Rose, and they ran to their nearest discerning record store to snatch up the album. Or three, the most likely path, they were familiar with him as a member of Lambchop. I went with route 2, but really any way you discover Tyler’s work, you’re in for a treat. He is the rare flat-pick guitarist who works fantastically within the form and also knows how to expand his sound to incorporate more than just Fahey idolization. He crafts a whole world with his guitar, and here he expands to electric performances and more ensemble work, to great effect. It’s one of the most knotty, assured albums of this young year, and a triumph.
But I’m getting ahead of myself here. For those not in the know, William Tyler’s solo work is comprised, largely, of acoustic guitar instrumentals, played with a deft and virtuosic style known as flatpicking, where the guitarist can often mirror a rhythm and lead track simultaneously to great effect. Tyler can make the sound of a full band with his hands, as “Oahpse,” the standout track from his first album, clearly and impressively illustrated. However, even on that album he was willing to go beyond the usual solo fare that dominates the flatpicking world to include horn players and an additional accompanists, mirroring the genre’s patron saint John Fahey’s early ‘70s foray with the John Fahey Orchestra, a jazz group that backed him on a number of bluesy and psychedelic ragtime excursions to great effect. Here, Tyler goes further, including horns, twanging electric guitars and even occasional forays into noise. “Geography of Nowhere” hints at classic rock, and the beginning of his solo has a nod to the intro to “Paint it Black.”
Throughout, Tyler plays with a restraint that is uncommon for such virtuosic players, but that suits the album well. Instead, he builds a melodic core to the songs and only occasionally dives into forays of flying fingers on strings (but when he does, it’s to great effect.) That this album finds Tyler moving from venerable acoustic label Tompkins Square to virtual new-era major Merge is fortuitous. The wider exposure their support will provide him is entirely deserved, as he’s crafted a catchy, well-played development on his first album and realized the promise he’s shown. Go get this one.