Ryley Walker may only be 26-years old, but he already has established himself as one of America’s great artists. He is unlike many in his craft, as he is not solely a graceful singer-songwriter and masterful guitar player. He is also a brilliant composer, who plies his craft in ’70s folk and folk-rock as oppose to classical music. Ryley Walker is the Simon and Garfunkel, Nick Drake, John Taylor, Jackson Browne, and John Denver of his generation, which makes it a really humbling experience to review his work.
His previous album, Primrose Green, was a beautiful affair that re-introduced us to the music of our parents and grandparents. It was a trailblazing record for bringing the musicianship back into music. The same classic approach and warm intimacy are repeated on his new album, Golden Sings That Have Been Sung.
There is, however, one subtle difference. Whereas Primrose Green felt like a series of short stories, Golden Sings is filled with personal memories and is more introspective. “The Halfwit in Me” has Walker recalling his adolescence and naivete about the world around him. The arrangements on the song, though, is what is most notable, as Walker’s expert guitar skills take center stage. The keyboards, rhythm guitar, percussion, and double bass are all also extremely exquisite, like a small symphony playing folk-rock.
“The Roundabout” is literally a trip down memory lane and the intersection between the past and present. The song is Walker returning to his hometown, and the polarizing feelings that come with the visit. On the one hand, there is an exasperation that the town and its inhabitants, including old friends, have changed very little, yet you have. On the other hand, there is relief to know that you can always come back to a place that is familiar and that you can call home.
“The Great and Undecided” and “Sullen Mind” build on “The Roundabout”. Beneath the cool, romantic strumming of his acoustic guitar, Walker is caught in reflection, trying to rationalize his choice to move away. He is “The Great and Undecided”, a self-deprecating description about his indecisive nature. The entrapment of the small town, though, can leave one powerless and easily influenced. One, thus, becomes the “Sullen Mind”, a person who is unwillingly accepting his situation. The intensity of the instruments towards the end of the song is fantastic, brilliantly representing the internal conflict that exists within one’s mind.
The brief “I Will Ask You Twice” is another deeply contemplative song. The track is like a concise and contemporary version of Romeo and Juliet, as Walker shares a story of two lovers from different upbringings. The lyrics on the song are among the album’s best with its Father John Misty-esque playfulness and poignancy.
“Play footsie with Jesus.
But man what did we touch.
I don’t read the Bible, baby.
I think it says don’t ask much.
With good posture for peace,
A celebration would be nice.
And would you marry me, baby.
I will ask you twice.”
The one song that echoes Primose Green in mood and approach is “Funny Thing She Said”. The number is stark and brooding, making it perfect the deep pockets of Chicago’s jazz scene or in a ’40s film noir. Walker’s storytelling approaches cinematic levels, as he sings about an illicit love affair with a mysterious woman. Images of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall embracing under the pale light of the full moon may dance in your head while this song is played.
The diversity and complexity of Walker’s music is what has him standing above the rest. He is a throwback to a time when singers were storytellers and musicians were experts in their craft. With Golden Sings that Have Been Sung, he has further distinguished himself as one of his generation’s great artists. Insightful songwriter. Masterful guitarist. Brilliant composer. There is no one like Ryley Walker right now, and to think he has yet to reach his peak.
Golden Sings that Have Been Sung is out not on Dead Oceans. Walker is about to re-start his tour in early September, which will see him traverse North America before heading to Europe for November and December. Find tour dates here.
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