Album Review: Ryley Walker - Deafman Glance

This Ryley Walker album, Deafman Glance, has been sitting on my computer for roughly two months now. One of the many, many things that I procure and download, it made it farther along than some things—some things just stay in the .rar or .zip files they came in, never to be unsealed; some things are extracted, but the folder never ends up in my iTunes library (e.g. Cardi B); but Walker made it to that hallowed final destination.

However, that doesn’t even necessarily mean I am really going to write a review of an album. There are plenty of things that I’ve downloaded and actually added into my music library, but something’s prevented me from sitting down and, in earnest, placing my fingers to the keyboard. Perhaps I find that it isn’t a very good album after all, and I don’t have a ton to say about it. Despite my curmudgeonly nature at times, I’ve really tried to curb the amount of vitriol I spill on this site now.

Perhaps I have every intention of writing a review, but other albums or other writing projects get in the way; or perhaps I overwhelmed myself with the deadlines and schedule I’ve planned out, and things begin to get cut; or perhaps I’m just simply too depressed to write about it.

A few things go through my mind whenever I’ve sat down with Deafman Glance—I’ve listened to it once in the car, once while doing chores and sitting with my rabbit, and a few times while doing work at the computer. The first thing that always strikes me is the sound of the record itself. All of Walker’s albums have been constructed to have an older sound—connecting them to a different time and place. His debut, for example, released four years ago, is more focused on his very precise work on the acoustic guitar, and calls to mind other singer/songwriters from the 1960s and 70s that found a way to blend folk and jazz.

His subsequent releases, one in 2015, the other the following year, have found him expanding his palate slightly—the songs include a little more instrumentation, though they still are confined to similarly jazzy and folky arrangements.

Deafman Glance works to change all of that—it isn’t exactly a dramatic departure, but a departure never the less, or an additional expansion on his sound. On it, Walker begins to incorporate more country and western, or at least ‘Americana’ influence into his songwriting. You can hear that almost right out of the gate with the slow motion shuffle and minor twang of the opening track, “In Castle Dome.”

The second thing that strikes me almost immediately during Deafman Glance is Walker’s voice—at times, it seems like he’s doing his best Eddie Vedder impression. Not, like, the screaming and howling Vedder from Pearl Jam’s very early days; no, like the reserved and introspective Vedder. This range that he’s singing in here is a stark contrast from the practically youthful tone he used on his debut, All Kinds of You or the Van Morrison channeling Primrose Green.

Deafman Glance is not a difficult album as a whole, but it is capable, at times, of being a challenging statement from Walker. After opening with two relatively accessible, if not sprawling, songs, he shifts dramatically into a dissonant free jazz stumble called “Accommodations,” complete with a noisy, spastic freak out at the end, and bizarre lyrics that Walker either sings or speaks while the music swoons or creeps along with him.

This is not to be outdone, and is followed by “Can’t Ask Why,” a song that starts out like the album’s moodiest and most atmospheric piece, before exploding into near classic rock bombast by the end.

After it hits the halfway point, Deafman, more or less, retreats back to that initial accessibility and affability of the first two songs, with Walker blending the charm of folk, country, and freewheeling jazz arrangements for something that, on paper, looks like it could be a total disaster, but winds up being unique and compelling.

What doesn’t exactly come through in Walker’s music, though you can catch glimmers of it here and there if you concentrate, is his sardonic sense of humor—something he has no problem turning on in recent interviews to promote the record.

In a piece on Vice, when talking about the preparation for recording Deafman Glance, he says, “Finally something clicked for me; the words I was writing were actually cool and thankfully had nothing about a stupid-ass mountain or trees like my old songs.”

In an unrelated interview for Stereogum, he all but dismisses his earlier effort, Primrose Green, by bluntly calling it not very good. “I just wanted to be a cool 60s guy,” he confesses.

There’s something moderately ramshackle and almost unhinged about parts of this record, like at times, Walker and his band are on the verge of letting a song fall apart—you can hear it in the big, bombastic blasts of the album’s self-deprecating final track, “Spoil With The Rest.” That kind of volatile atmosphere is slightly reminiscent of Jason Molina’s Magnolia Electric Company—though maybe it’s the Midwesterner in me (and in Walker, and in Molina) who sees that.

But they never let it fall apart; it’s an album that’s both straightforward and incredibly complicated. Walker himself, with a working class background, lets that kind of ‘everyman’ personality bleed into his music, but at the same time, he’s not afraid to craft evocative fragments with his lyrics.

Deafman Glance is a very slow burning record, one that really takes time to ease into and appreciate for all it is, as well as what it isn’t. It isn’t exactly infectious, though Walker, honing his songwriting skill, has created a record that is memorable.

Deafman Glance is out now via Dead Oceans.