Behold the guitar. Master it and Western music is at your fingertips; ignore it at your own peril. Nashville native William Tyler has played the six-string on albums from some of indie rock's heavyweights: the Silver Jews' Bright Flight and Tanglewood Numbers, Lambchop's Aw Cmon and Bonnie 'Prince' Billy's Master and Everyone, just to name a few. It's an impressive list, and listening to Behold the Spirit you get the feeling that he has the talent, vision and know-how to go anywhere he wants.
Unlike many of his recordings with others, though, Behold the Spirit is light on hooks. It's an atmospheric album full of intricately plucked guitar strings, loops and long tones. It's hard to judge an album like this without talking about where you were when you listened to it, but Behold the Spirit's ability to mold itself to any mood is among its strengths.
Tyler, of course, is an amazing guitar player. He is among the cream on the crop of his latter-day Takoma school contemporaries and was featured on his label's most recent compendium of outstanding new acoustic guitarists, Imaginational Anthem v. 4. Time and again on Behold the Spirit, he demonstrates just how good he is without getting either too showy or self-absorbed.
Opener "Terrace of the Leper King" starts out warm and inviting, but across its eight and a half minutes turns somewhat violent. It sounds like a revelation in the morning. Yet the most disturbing thing about Behold the Spirit isn't necessarily Tyler's playing, but the intricacy of production. Deep in the background on that track, I hear muted voices and atmospheric found sounds. It's a reminder that Tyler is more than just an acoustic folkie; he's a composer with a delicate ear for detail. Most of these songs engender themselves to Tortoise or Lonely Galaxy fans who understand that music is emotional more than anything else. "Tears and Saints" (I read the first word as the things that come from your eyes when you cry, not rips in fabric, but I suppose it could go either way) is so melancholy and bittersweet its twin guitar lines seem like weary lovers.
The whole thing is emotional and moving, though not necessarily awe inspiring. If you're a fan of instrumental guitar, folk or even gentler noise, give Behold the Spirit a chance. It's rich in talent, even if short on crossover appeal. Tyler is gifted enough to do most anything with his guitar, and he'll move you if you let him. But his career is destined to far outlive this album. It is but an evocative step in what is already shaping up to be a long and fruitful career.
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