When guitar wunderkind Ryley Walker releases his first album of proper songs in a couple of years, this new glimpse at where he’s headed in his music is cause to rejoice. The Rockford native shredded in a noisy fashion as a youth, playing in free-jazzin’ bands Heat Death and Tiger Hatchery, but about a decade ago Walker seemed to undergo a seismic shift: he traded in dissonance a la jazz guitarist Sonny Sharrock for the mellow sound of troubled singer-songwriters such as the Tims Hardin and Buckley. On his 2015 solo full-length Primrose Green, a fuller, more autumnal aesthetic entered the picture, familiar to fans of UK acts such as Pentangle and Accolade (and even Van “Grumpy Old COVID Denier” Morrison) that combined elements of prog, folk, and jazz. With 2016’s Golden Sings That Have Been Sung, Walker shared his love of the dry, angular pop abstraction practiced in the 90s by the likes of Gastr del Sol and Tortoise, and for the new Course in Fable he enlisted Tortoise’s John McEntire to engineer, mix, and produce.
To the ears of this longtime fan, Course in Fable is the album Walker has been leading up to his whole life. His current progressive-rock obsessions, among them Genesis and Gentle Giant, have already illustrated how to throw in everything but the kitchen sink, and here Walker channels all his past influences into a singular voice. His conversational, John Martyn-esque vocal delivery has grown into something unique, especially when he couples wry, self-deprecating observations with sweetly sung melodies (“Rang Dizzy” includes the lines “Fuck me, I’m alive” and “I sat on the lawn wondering ‘Should I dose again?,’” while on “Striking Down Your Big Premiere” he remarks, “Always shit brained when I’m pissed”). Walker recently marked two years of sobriety, and throughout Course in Fable, he’s clearly on a redemptive journey through the darkest and most drug-damaged parts of his psyche, both lyrically and musically. Complex, dizzying arrangements unfold from the first moments of opener “Striking Down Your Big Premiere,” and things break down into utter cacophony at one point on “Axis Bent.” Still, this is no obtuse, inaccessible concept album for music-school nerds; the impossibly sugary chamber-pop hooks of “Shiva with Dustpan” and “Rang Dizzy,” which recall the cough-syrupy, darkly tuneful heights of Big Star’s Third or John Parker Compton’s underappreciated Appaloosa, have been stuck in my head for days. Released on Walker’s own Husky Pants label, the album features several longtime collaborators, including badass stand-up bassist Andrew Scott Young, godly guitar picker Bill MacKay, and in-demand session drummer Ryan Jewell. But while Course in Fable maintains a warm nostalgic glow, it also looks towards the future. I can’t wait to see where Walker goes next—even if he tries fusing techno with Krautrock and tropicalia, I’m in. v