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Ryley Walker - Deafman Glance Music Album Reviews

Ryley Walker - Deafman Glance Music Album Reviews

After several albums of traditional, jazzy folk-rock, the Chicago-based singer-songwriter finds a more instinctive voice.

Deafman Glance is road-trip music for a car that keeps breaking down. Taking its name from the title of experimental theater artist Robert Wilson’s 1970 play set in a cryptic, menacing world with no sound, the latest album by Chicago-based singer-songwriter Ryley Walker repeatedly collapses into silence only to pull itself back together again, injured but emboldened. Up until now, the 28-year-old guitarist’s work was some of the most traditional and reverential to be released by his generation of forward-thinking Americana acts; his jazzy take on folk-rock felt like a fogged-up tribute to heroes like John Martyn and Bert Jansch. On his new record, he distances himself from those influences and finds a more instinctive voice.

Walker’s lyrics previously served as a mere complement to his winding, pastoral fingerpicking, but now he writes closer to home, describing the familiar landscapes of Chicago and the self-destructive monotony of life on the road. His music is heavier and more complex than it used to be, the arrangements harsher and stranger. And then there’s his singing: Once a competent and breezy instrument, Walker’s voice has evolved into a throaty speak-sing that sounds depleted, as though it’s been scooped out of itself. These shifts give the record a deeper emotional resonance than anything else he’s put his name to. “I’m not flipping through record bins anymore,” he recently declared. “I’m just making Ryley Walker records.”

As so often happens when we leave our trusted guides, things quickly fall apart. After gentle, hallucinogenic opener “In Castle Dome” and the dusky fusion of “22 Days,” the scenery collapses, the sky darkens, and shit gets weird. “Accomodations” is Walker’s most discomforting composition—a cacophony of bad-trip ambience and loopy imagery (“Nothing to eat/Only a pound of flesh”) that echo between caustic refrains. Placed so early on the album, it’s a sign that Walker trusts his audience to follow him into unfamiliar territory.

This adventurous spirit makes Deafman Glance a coherent mood piece and a confident expansion on 2016’s Golden Sings That Have Been Sung. The multi-part “Telluride Speed” is immediately striking, with Chicago jazz fixture Nate Lepine’s flute guiding the song through its dreamy verses, proggy breakdowns, and stomping, psychedelic coda. It’s not the first of Walker’s compositions to resemble a long stretch of quiet road, but it’s the first that takes you somewhere distinctly surprising. This is a trick the album pulls off repeatedly, without losing its thrill. “My word is divine/I control the weather,” Walker once sang, with a hint of self-deprecation. Deafman Glance marks the moment when his work actually has the power to alter the atmosphere around it.

The force driving these songs—from the exquisite slow burn of “Expired” to the instrumental guitar ramble “Rocks on Rainbow”—is an embrace of the unexpected. Melodies and grooves expand in a way that was previously limited to Walker’s famously experimental live shows. The passages that stand out, like the warped soft-rock guitar solo in “Opposite Middle” and the skittering climax of “22 Days,” have the ephemeral quality of improvisation. These moments add up to an album that feels equally thoughtful and spontaneous, restrained and unpredictable.

“Spoil With the Rest” closes Deafman Glance by pairing Walker’s tale of confronting his limitations with a triumphant swirl of guitars. “I woke up with intuition,” he affirms softly, his voice nearly overpowered by the music. It’s not a straightforwardly happy ending, but it sends a hopeful message: Dig through the crates for long enough and you might discover yourself.

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