With each new album, William Tyler’s portrait of America gets deeper and more personal. His compositions—always wordless, mostly in major keys—have been written for acoustic guitar (2010’s Behold the Spirit), electric guitar (2013’s Impossible Truth), and an innovative band blending rural folk music and krautrock (2016’s Modern Country). Despite the differences in presentation, his work always conjures a similar image of the country. When Tyler plays guitar, there’s a feeling of hope and forward motion, largely tied to his wildly expressive right hand, which he uses to pluck up bundles of strings like a gardener pulling weeds. He’s a solo guitarist I would call texturally focused, but he’s also the one whose songs are most likely to get stuck in your head. He never aims to dazzle with virtuosity; he’s got too much ground to cover.
With Goes West, Tyler’s fourth solo album, he’s written the prettiest, simplest songs of his career. Compared to the psychedelic epics on Modern Country, these compositions show their cards quickly, with many sticking to traditional verse-chorus structures, and they play like balms. If so many of Tyler’s records have found him loading up the trunk, inviting you into the passenger seat, and heading some place new, then Goes West is more like finding a remote spot to park for a while and taking in the sunset. Accordingly, it’s also his most sentimental work, subtle and emotionally charged in a way that highlights his evolution as a songwriter. In an autobiographical sense, the title marks a turning point: Tyler’s first music since leaving his native Nashville for Los Angeles. But it’s also the closest thing to pop music the 39-year-old composer has ever made.
Leading the band with his trusted, timeworn Martin D-18 acoustic, Tyler has assembled a group with a lighter touch. Griffin Goldsmith’s drums are brush-stroked and lyrical; piano and synth from co-producer Bradley Cook and James Anthony Wallace often resemble wind chimes, or at their more atmospheric, the slow breeze behind them. And throughout the record, Meg Duffy accompanies on electric guitar with a shadow-like effect, suggesting depth and distance to Tyler’s beatific melodies. The album’s strongest moments are also its softest: the elegiac “Call Me When I’m Breathing Again” and “Rebecca,” whose refrain is so sweet and familiar it had me trying to figure out which McCartney song it resembles. Both Tyler and Duffy—who records as Hand Habits and has also played with Kevin Morby and the War on Drugs—have a zen-like melodic sensibility, levitating up the fretboard in glassy, crystalline patterns. Duffy’s most affecting solo on the record cuts the plaintive “Man in a Hurry” in half: It’s bright and fleeting, a burst of lightning in lazy summer rain.
When Tyler lived in the South, he used his music to interrogate a place he’d known since childhood. In these songs, he’s more tentative about the world around him, if no less inquisitive. Working in a line of disparate artists ranging from New Age, folk, and classical—which he recently characterized as “cosmic pastoral”—Tyler has always paired the sprawling sound of Americana with the ugliness that can reside within its expanse. The tension in his work often feels like his way of navigating the dissonance; that so many of his compositions resolve in ringing, open chords becomes a way of summoning peace from deep within. On Goes West, he employs this to a subtler effect. “Fail Safe,” with its lapping drums and waterfalls of trilling harmonies, could soundtrack a TV spot for a beach resort, but it was also inspired by the language accompanying threats of nuclear war. “Virginia Is for Loners” is one of his many tributes to the road but it’s distinct in conjuring mostly the barren vistas along the way, a low cello humming through its lonely refrain.
Tyler is drawn to instrumental music that takes inspiration from distinct historical events, he once explained, “like Hiroshima or the crucifixion of Jesus.” Goes West feels less conceptually united than any of his work—more inspired by the contemplation of history than history itself—but this searching quality adds to its honest, meditative power. Many of the songs feel like visions left intentionally ambiguous, and the record is bound by a pensive, permeating calmness. The closing “Our Lady of the Desert” occasionally threatens to break this hypnotic spell, rising in momentum with jazz lifer Bill Frisell’s lilting, birdsong guitar solos. Where one of Tyler’s earlier compositions might have taken off from here and become airborne, this one rises and falls and fades, ending the album like a deep exhale, a wordless signal that it’s time to keep moving.