Saturday, April 04, 2015

A few words about "Primrose Green", an album by Ryley Walker

Or, "The Anxiety of Influence".

So the new Ryley Walker album, "Primrose Green", now walks amongst us. It seems to have copped something of a dissin' on the Pitchfork. They may have a point: it does sound, at various times, like a young man trying desperately to be Tim Buckley, or John Martyn, or Van Morrison (the cover could easily be from an imagined early-seventies Van album), or Nick Drake, or Bert Jansch, or the recently departed John Renbourn.

But if any of the above were to make a record in 2015, I doubt that it would sound anything like this one. (Possible exception: Bert Jansch, whose "Black Swan" consciously attempted to place itself amongst the elder statesmen of his own back catalogue, as if to suggest that those who wore him as a badge (some of whom played on the album) still had the real thing to compete with.) Think of the steep and sudden descent, quality-wise, of the last couple of Tim Buckley albums. Or how the ravages of time ate into John Martyn. Van Morrison, well, him we will probably never figure out. Walker's songs are not parodies. They are not pastiches. They are possibly best described as "in the style of". But even that isn't quite right. I think what he is doing is trying on different sets of clothes to see how they fit. Walker is self-evidently a prodigious talent, as singer, guitarist, songwriter, arranger. It is what he chooses to do with that talent that will determine who he becomes as an artist.

Is that really such a bad thing? It seems to be acceptable for young novelists to wear their influences on their sleeves. Or aspiring visual artists. I always understood that if you wanted to do something well, you could do worse than observe, and by extension try to figure out, how the masters did it. And those names above are not such a bad set of influences.

In this media-driven, warp-speed century, it may well be that the only place to grow up as an artist is in public. James Blake has been doing just that. We still don't know who he is as an artist, but it's been a fascinating journey so far. (Blake is not a classicist like Walker, but that makes no difference. They are both grasping for their sound.) James Blackshaw likewise. In fact, Blackshaw may be slightly different: he started out as "the new John Fahey", teased that out, at length, about as far as it could go, brought in some different instrumentation, did some soundtrack work, and has re-emerged in 2015 with "Summoning Suns", an album that is frequently unrecognisable as James Blackshaw, but which may turn out to be one of the albums of the year.

So consider this as a snapshot from an evolving life story. But also enjoy it for what it is: a damn fine album by a damn fine musician.

"On The Banks Of The Old Kishwaukee", which kicks off side two of the vinyl, seems to leapfrog over the above names to a more traditional time, where songs weren't owned by the people who first sang them so much as they were released into the wild to take on a life, or lives, of their own. Curiously, we might even say paradoxically (we might also say I am an idiot), it may be the closest we have yet got to Walker's true voice. I can't find the album version on the net, but here are a couple of live YouTubes, which themselves suggest an evolution taking place:

The other thing you should do is check out these two excellent live recordings of Walker, from January and March of this year. We should be excited about where he goes from here. But we should also be patient.