Ryley Walker’s breakout record, last spring’s Primrose Green, was an inspired take on ‘60-inspired jazz folk, centered around intricate guitar riffs where the vocals were sometimes an afterthought. Influenced by John Fahey and Jack Rose while also following in a new wave with contemporaries like Steve Gunn and William Tyler, the album was a strong showing by a promising artist looking to further a traditional sound.
But Walker wasn’t necessarily thrilled about Primrose Green, and is anxious to put that era behind him and move on to something new. “I did that for a few years, and I was like, ‘Goddamnit. Why am I doing this. It’s not me,’” Walker told The Passion of the Weiss. On his followup, Golden Sings That Have Been Sung, he jumps forward about two decades to ‘90s indie rock. Instead of folk legends, Chicago greats like Tortoise, Jim O’Rourke, and The Sea and Cake are the signposts, with a focus on lyrics similar to his idols Mark Eitzel and Mark Kozelek. He worked with friend and producer Leroy Bach (formerly of Wilco) to help shape his complex arrangements. Walker has lofty goals, and Golden Sings is his most ambitious work yet.
Walker works quickly, having releasing three solo records in three years with every intention of continuing that trend, but the amount of care and consideration that went into his latest is apparent. The near seven minutes of “Funny Thing She Said” unfold slowly and naturally, with ornate guitar riffs dragging behind the jazzy piano lead. With his backing band, Walker finds a quiet majesty in this gentle approach. The wilting piano languidly drives the song as if it’s materializing for the first time, requiring patience.
The dalliances with piano-led jazz rock pop up in the record, but Walker’s guitar still resonates as the lead instrument. His fingerpicked melodies shape songs like opener and highlight “The Halfwit In Me”, serving as the backbone for much of the album. A slow, gentle riff drives the prolonged closer “Age Old Tale”, as shimmering chimes drift in and out. He may no longer be reaching for virtuoso status, but his skill with the instrument takes prominence as he expands his palette.
He initially envisioned the album as a collection of four extended suites, but moved towards shorter, more baroque songs. The result is a combination of both styles, with half the album made of long, winding, evolving tracks. There are occasionally pacing issues, with songs like “Sullen Mind” running longer than the track can reasonably sustain, but the varying styles find Walker growing comfortable utilizing different frameworks. Walker likes to jam when playing live, and that sense of loose expansion is applied to his songs, an ebb and flow with room to breathe.
Throughout, Walker’s esoteric rambling takes center stage, with the singer spinning yarns in a stream of consciousness approach. It falls in line with the recent methods of Kozelek (Walker thought Universal Themes was better than Benji) but doesn’t read as much as diary entries. In his charming and amiable demeanor, Walker attempts to create poetry out of whatever pops into his head, but doesn’t always succeed. An example of it working comes on single “The Roundabout”, where musings of ordering tap water at a bar (because his “credit is quite shit”) quickly develop into personal, reflective considerations (“Come to think of it, I think my dad wanted a daughter”).
Walker perfectly captures the feeling of spending a late night with a drunken friend who flips on a dime between lighthearted jokes, faux-deep observations, and emotional confessions. On tracks like the well-meaning but overwrought romantic ballad “I Will Ask You Twice”, this style can create particularly cloying moments. Mostly, he presents a cynical and self-deprecating worldview — “wise-assed wisdom wasted on the young,” as he puts it, rounding out his persona.
Walker may be following in the footsteps of others, but the decision to reposition himself as the frontman of a rock band rather than a folk guitarist allows him to develop a more clear identity than before. A wry personality with a light touch, Walker is relaxed and calming without coming off uninterested. Pivoting genres is no easy feat, and growing pains are expected and present. His knack for precision and developing lush arrangements on these eight songs proves that he’s more than up to the task.
Essential Tracks: “The Roundabout”, “The Halfwit In Me”, and “Funny Thing She Said”