It’s a cliche to say that Ryley Walker sounds old before his time, but after all, the reason why cliches are cliches are because they’re often true. The 28-year-old from Chicago sounds like he’s been beamed in from the mid-’70s, with a copy of John Martyn‘s discography tucked under his arm. His fourth album, Deafman Glance, is the latest installment in the often fascinating way his career has evolved.
For the Ryley Walker of 2018 is very different from the one who released his debut in 2014. Walker’s early years were spent carving out a niche as a folkie troubadour, one who wrote pleasant enough songs that always seemed on the verge of breaking out into something more interesting but never quite managed it. That changed with the release of 2016’s Golden Sings That Have Been Sung, which added a much-welcomed dose of experimentation into the mix.
Deafman Glance takes where Golden Sings left off and runs with it. He’s no longer the acoustic folkie, but an artist who’s likely to suddenly switch time signatures or unexpectedly launch into a sudden guitar solo. It still sounds very retro (in the best possible sense) but there’s no longer the sound of a man rather too much in thrall to his influences.
There’s an unhurried, relaxed tone to much of Deafman Glance though – opening track In Castle Dome could be described as mellow, with little hints of flute wavering beneath Walker’s guitar. It’s a pace that’s stuck to throughout the album, making it perfect listening for long summer nights – the kind of soundtrack you could just put on, sit back and immerse yourself in. Walker’s voice brings to mind that of Pearl Jam’s main man Eddie Vedder‘s quieter moments, or the vulnerability of Jeff Buckley.
If there’s a fault with Deafman Glance, it’s a tendency to drift into instrumental noodling a bit too much – the album feels far longer than its 41 minutes, due to the sometimes too languid pace. Telluride Speed seems to go on forever (actually six and a half minutes) and is weighed down by a lack of focus, where it meanders around constantly while bursting into the odd guitar solo. There’s a few too many songs like this – Expired and Can’t Ask Why to name but two – for Deafman Glance to be considered an unqualified success.
Yet, every so often, Walker hits the target. Opposite Middle is probably the best track on the album, where the pace picks up briskly and Walker’s guitar playing becomes quietly mesmeric, while there’s a world-weary tone to Walker’s vocal that hits the right emotional note. Accommodations has a weird, free-jazz tone to it, that sounds jarring at first but soon casts a spell, and the half-spoken, introspective Spoil With The Rest makes for a fine closer, building up to an instrumental climax that near takes the breath away. It’s moments like that which remind you what a virtuoso musician Walker really is.
Deafman Glance won’t be for everyone – some will bemoan the lack of memorable melodies and be turned off by the sometimes rather too pastoral feel. It’s a strange sort of record which doesn’t exactly grab you from the off, but has quality enough to keep you coming back, and at least suggests that Ryley Walker’s next move will be intriguing.