Illinois singer-songwriter Ryley Walker has already carved his own niche as a guitarist and songwriter somewhat in thrall to a specific set of expansive folk influences (John Martyn, Tim Buckley, Bert Jansch, Nick Drake). He has occupied this particular area so clearly and strongly that he has largely been unable to escape interviews that focus more on his listening than his own work. His last album, Primrose Green, although excellent, probably didn’t help too much, given its wistful, nostalgic title, cover design and sound. This could all be about to change with Golden Sings That Have Been Sung, a consistently surprising third album full of Walker’s sardonic, self deprecating persona – marking him out as a dry narrative wit to match Mark Kozelek – and finding Walker exploring new and unusual musical spaces.
Produced by LeRoy Bach (Wilco) and featuring an array of Walker’s favourite Chicago musicians, many steeped in both improvisation and a textural approach to ensemble playing, the music here sounds freewheeling and exploratory. Primrose Green did too, although what transpires here is often more ruminative and less hurried. The eight songs are substantial journeys, with as many detours and digressions as Walker feels called to take, yet for the most part they are also reasonably concise (some way from the four long pieces Walker had half-jokingly threatened might constitute his next album).
Opening track The Halfwit In Me serves as something of a bridging point between Primrose Green’s nostalgia and the semi-autobiographical ramblings of Golden Sings. It’s both energetic and delicate, played with an impressively light touch – somehow both endearingly ramshackle and virtuosic at the same time. While The Halfwit In Me is considerably more urgent and escapist than anything else here, it does give hints of Walker’s approach to writing. One of his main aims seems to be to create and explore space, both within the music and in his vocal phrasing. So the melodies are sometimes subservient to the overall atmosphere of a song (as on Age Old Tale) or seem deceptively limited. Whilst there are huge amounts of detail in the music, there is also enough space for the vocal; the creation of space and texture is explored much further later in the album. Also, it feels carefully structured and designed, with delineated parts (although not overwritten).
Whilst there are still examples of the kind of dexterous acoustic guitar playing now closely associated with Walker’s music, there is also a greater sense of space and time here, enabling Walker to place greater emphasis on his lyrics. This is a mischievous, verbose and often wryly amusing set of songs. Ironic or absurd jokes are liberally peppered throughout, many of them seemingly at Walker’s own expense. The Roundabout has a brilliant moment in which Walker and a group of friends head to a bar, realise they have no money and end up drinking tap water. There’s also a surreal ramble about playing football with Jesus.
The Buckley and Martyn influences can still be discerned, but there are also hints of more contemporary reference points too. Age Old Tale, with its lingering chords and delicate, brushed cymbal work, seems to channel the spirit of Talk Talk circa Laughing Stock, whilst a more presiding influence, both in terms of the music and lyrics, must surely be Jim O’Rourke. Yet Walker also seems much closer to finding his own individual voice here. If his vocals sometimes seemed a little mannered previously, here he sounds much more direct and unmediated. And if it sometimes felt as if Walker felt the need to imitate his heroes, here he seems to have better assimilated the information he needs, trusting his own instincts and his own sound, as well as drawing from a wider range of sources. His next step is surely to innovate.