By Sharon O’Connell
Load a promotional copy of Ryley Walker’s fifth solo album into iTunes and the descriptor “prog fucking rock” appears beneath the title and his name. It’s a slyly humorous detail that speaks volumes; most obviously, about his deep, oft-declared love for that music, which has a role here, but also his habit of self-mocking. Whether it’s in interviews, onstage chat or his Twitter feed, Walker is always ready with a pin, to prick truth’s painful swelling or any hint of pretentiousness.
If there’s a place where that self-consciousness falls away and Walker roams (almost) free, it’s in the authentic present of his music. It was the absence of what he called “smoke and mirrors” that first drew him to Bert Jansch, Nick Drake and John Martyn for 2014’s All Kinds Of You, which introduced a guitarist skilled beyond his 24 years, undisguised influences or no. A year later, Primrose Green confirmed him as a striking songwriting and instrumental talent committed to the cause, with an irresistibly sun-glazed, stoner jazz-folk style that leaned heavily on Pentangle and Tim Buckley as well as the mystic flow and vocal tics of Van Morrison.
As a comparison of the Primrose Green and Astral Weeks covers shows, Walker’s image played to retro romance and the idea of the gilded prodigy. That might have seen a lesser artist forever shackled to his sources but Walker soon moved on. After the all-instrumental Land Of Plenty (one of two fine hook-ups with Bill MacKay) came 2016’s Golden Sings That Have Been Sung, which was to some degree a transitional album. Its opener, “The Halfwit In Me”, showed that although ’70s UK folk still loomed large, Walker was keen to explore his other interests, namely Chicago-school experimentalism, improv jazz and chamber pop.
It was with Deafman Glance in 2018, though, that he stepped out of the shadow of his heroes and into the leftfield contemporary sunlight. As Walker said at the time: “I really can’t go back to making a Fairport Convention-sounding record.” “Telluride Speed”, especially, is significant: starting with spry, finger-picked guitar and pastoral flute, it then establishes an urgent, post-rock-ish motif that opens up into abstract pastoralism, allowing him to chuck in a couple of minutes of psych guitar vamping. However, Deafman Glance is not the only evidence that Walker has really been stretching his legs of late: in recent years, he has made two records with free-jazz drummer Charles Rumback and, in February, he joined Japanese psych rockers Kikagaku Moyo for a live album. For anyone still finding it hard to mentally reconfigure Walker, it’s worth noting that since he moved to New York in 2019, there have been improv hook-ups with David Grubbs, JR Bohannon and Garcia Peoples, among others. Staying in his lane has never appealed.
All of which makes Course In Fable a clear case of natural evolution, rather than calculated reinvention – and a record that opens a fresh chapter in Walker’s story. It’s a short (just 41 minutes), ineluctably lovely set, light, bright and often dizzyingly joyful, but also thrillingly unpredictable, with complex, jazzy arrangements against which Walker’s phrasing gently pushes and pulls. His lyrics are as poetic, poignant and sometimes droll as they are difficult to parse, although as always, they capture the writer’s experiential instant. It seems that his “now” is less painful than it has been for some time. The music sees him drawn back to his formative years in Chicago, reconnecting with its rich underground history and the likes of Gastr Del Sol/Jim O’Rourke, Isotope 217 and Tortoise, whose John McEntire produces.
Bill MacKay, touring buddy Andrew Scott Young and Ryan Jewell (a Walker mainstay live, who also played on Golden Sings) serve on guitar/piano, bass/piano and drums, respectively. It’s an ensemble effort, born from trust and intuitive flair, but the Young/Jewell team deserve respect for the balletic grace and buoyancy present in …Fable. There are understated strings, synths and (crucially) space to turn cartwheels. Explaining his choice of players, Walker told Uncut his trick is “to just be around folks I love and see what sticks. There’s a fearlessness when I hear Andrew, Bill and Ryan play music. I follow their lead. There’s a revolving door of a dozen or so folks over the years who humble me and keep me listening and learning.”