The weight of the past bears heavy on William Tyler. During a recent performance in the early Gothic Hall at New York City’s Cloisters Museum — a castle-like space housing all manner of medieval art in the upper reaches of the west side of Manhattan — he pretty much said so. Surrounded by various depictions of the Virgin Mary, 13th-century stained glass, and limestone windows, Tyler sat on a makeshift stage with an acoustic guitar and explained the strange history of “Kingdom of Jones,” one of the doleful instrumentals from his third LP, Modern Country. Many rightly think of the South for its history of brutal racism, but Tyler points in the title to Jones County, Mississippi — an area of anti-Confederacy resistance in the American Civil War that actually drafted its own constitution after Mississippi seceded from the union. He used it as a way to meditate on a bright spot in a tradition of darkness.
This approach isn’t new for Tyler. On 2010’s Behold the Spirit he called a track “Missionary Ridge” for the mountain in Tennessee that played home to one of the Civil War’s bloodiest battles and is now as modernized as anywhere else in Tennessee. Throughout his career he’s dug through American folk tradition, found the best parts and teased out their woolly brilliance. Figuring out how the past plays into our understanding of the present, he’s an Americana archivist trading in complex guitar compositions.
Though he plugged in his axe for the similarly placid indie-rock act Lambchop and spent lengthy tours opening for Yo La Tengo, Tyler’s solo work to date has — with the occasional wheeze of an electric slide as an exception — mostly been acoustic. This has led to him being lumped in with the many guitarists reviving the solemn spirit of the great American primitivists, but Tyler’s not that sort of nostalgist. There may be hints of John Fahey and Sandy Bull in every instrumental guitarist that have come in their wake, but Modern Country especially suggests that Tyler’s aims are more diverse than re-inflating a genre that’s fallen out of favor. With the exception of “Kingdom of Jones,” a sparse acoustic track (and one of Tyler’s best to date), he leans heavily here on the electric guitars that only showed up in the margins before.
His instrumentals are similar to what he’s done on his previous records — droning folk fingerpickings as intricately woven as the tapestries that line the halls of the Cloisters — but with the electronic spark they land with a jolt that they never have before. New to the fold are bits of spectral feedback, slowly pattering drum machines, and chattering birds (much like Yo La Tengo’s sleepier material, for that matter), and they allow Tyler’s ancient melodies to gleam and glow. Think old blues riffs with a chrome finish — sleek, and, well, modern, a reinvention and re-contextualization that pays stunning tribute to what came before it.
Later on in that museum show, Tyler explained that an older song was inspired by the impending environmental collapse in the greater Los Angeles area, but then chuckled, acknowledging that what followed was an instrumental and not “an austere Frontline documentary or a TED talk.” Still, even if you ignore the grand history that the titles of Tyler’s pieces so clearly point to, you can still feel its presence on the record. Whether he’s teasing out the darkest parts of America’s history with an acoustic guitar, or allowing a genteel tremolo to ring as a meditation on modernization, it’s easy to get caught up in the disorienting, psychedelic drift of past becoming present. It’s even easier to just relax and float downstream.