When Nashville-born solo guitarist William Tyler played the Mercury Lounge last October as part of the Merge showcase during the CMJ Marathon, he introduced the track “Country Of Illusion” by talking about Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, the 1980 film that marked the end of 1970s auteur-driven American cinema and nearly destroyed its studio, United Artists. Standing on stage with only his guitar, the boyish 33-year-old never sang during his set, but he spoke to the crowd with a sly drawl and a youthful exuberance, explaining the origins of the movie, its ambitious director and its significance as an epoch-defining film. “It was a huge flop,” he said, “and it’s premiere was one week after Ronald Reagan was elected president. So I kind of see the failure of this film as some sort of symbolic funeral for one era of America.”
It makes sense that Tyler would be drawn to Cimino’s work—the Deer Hunter-director was known for infusing ambitious, epic stories with rough, human details—but it makes even more sense that he would be drawn to Heaven’s Gate, a film that stood at the precipice of two eras: freewheeling, free-spirited ’70s and the streamlined, corporate ’80s. Tyler’s music, particularly his latest album, Impossible Truth, is similarly caught between the ache of memory and the pull of the future. He’s described the album as apocalyptic, telling Spin that he drew inspiration for the record from reading three books—Cadillac Desert, Ecology Of Fear and Hotel California—about the un-sustainability of the world, but this is far from some type of post-rock doom fest. Tyler’s style of playing, a deft combination of finger-picking folk, toe-tapping country, lulling drones and sunny singer-songwriter lilt, is too pretty for that. In a very Cimino way, he’s excited by big, sweeping ideas, but he’s equally invested in the smaller, intimiate moments.
Like fellow modern virtuoso James Blackshaw, Tyler is one of the rare solo guitar players to make the crossover from the world of guitar instrumental music, defined by labels like Takoma and Tompkins Square, to something closer to the mainstream, a world where people hear the name John Fahey and say, “Oh, is that the dude who played Lapidus on Lost?” In a move that solidifies his status as a potential crossover artist, Tyler rode the acclaim of 2010′s Behold The Spirit, released on Tompkins Square, to a spot on the Merge roster, making him labelmates with indie-rock juggernauts like the Arcade Fire and She And Him. Far from being some attention-grabbing bid for commercial success, Impossible Truth is simultaneously a delicate refinement of the style found on Tyler’s debut and an impressive expansion of his songwriting abilities. It’s the type of crossover record that makes moves on its own terms.
Despite the album’s heavy themes, most of the songs here have a sublime, dusky quality. The album’s opener, the aforementioned “Country Of Illusion,” builds tension over almost nine minutes, unspooling itself slowly then recoiling like a knotted slinky suddenly springing back into its original form. Tyler builds suspense by establishing melodies and patterns then seeing how far he can lead you astray without losing you, and though there’s an astounding level of skill on display, it never feels like a masturbatory technical exercise. Sure, the focus is always on the guitar playing, but he’s not afraid to incorporate other instruments: “Cadillac Desert” kicks off with a menacing cello, and the album’s stunning closer, “The World Set Free,” brings in some grandeur-filled horns before spiraling into a Jim O’Rourke-style electric guitar meltdown. Despite these flourishes, the album still has a charming simplicity. The standout guitar-only piece “A Portrait Of Sarah” sounds almost like Harry Nilsson or Joni Mitchell at points, drawing you into its low-key, scrappy beauty.
As with many instrumental albums, much of the pleasure here comes from letting your imagination run wild as Tyler lulls you into his sepia-toned world. While it’s fun to think about the books Tyler references in the song titles and explore his personal website, where he’s shared a mix of influences and revealed that the album’s title actually comes from an Albert Brooks short film of the same name, the album’s greatest assets are its mercurial qualities. Whether he’s softly plucking away or spinning a complicated web of chords, Tyler’s music is transportive in the sense that it can offer an escape from just about anywhere: a busy street, a crowded train or a quiet, empty room. What’s interesting is that the brunt physicality of his playing, the twang and popping of the strings, keeps you grounded even as the songs point to the sky, leaving you on the precipice of transcendence, caught between worlds. He wouldn’t have it any other way.