Album review: William Doyle – Great Spans of Muddy Time

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“The end result is not what was in mind.”

In 2015, those words served as the refrain to a menacing yet inexplicably catchy piece of electronic pop by an artist called East India Youth. Of course, William Doyle couldn’t have expected this when he wrote them, but six years, one abandoned alias and a failed hard drive later, they’ve taken on an entirely new significance: they now fit equally well as the modus operandi of his newest album, Great Spans of Muddy Time.

I first became aware of Doyle’s music after the release of his first full album under his own name, 2019’s Your Wilderness Revisited, which doubled as a love letter and a sort of eulogy to his native English suburbia, replete with moving meditations on nostalgia and his childhood grief. Set to evocative soundscapes and richly lyrical art pop, all heard through Doyle’s own astonishingly detailed and inventive production, Wilderness demanded the word “masterpiece” like few records of the past decade and made it exciting to imagine where he might go next – would he continue to refine this concoction of progressive pop and sprawling electronica, or focus his clearly formidable talents on something else entirely?

And so we come to Great Spans. Much of what made its predecessor so impressive is thoroughly intact here; in particular, Doyle’s soaring vocals, especially on the otherwise subdued opener ‘I Need to Keep You in My Life’, and his gift for production still shape his music as much as ever. Crucially, however, a hard drive failure during the album’s creation, as Doyle puts it, “set the pieces free from my ceaseless tinkering”. The result is more like a fever dream than the clear, perfectly realised vision presented on WildernessGreat Spans is far more prone to surprises and jarring transitions and is, at its best, a compelling testament to imperfection and mistakes.

The lead single, ‘And Everything Changed (But I Feel Alright)’, sets the tone fittingly: its bright synths and steady beat are framed by an unfamiliar song structure, creating a slight sense of unease which contrasts intriguingly with how insistently joyful the song otherwise is. That unease continues when the listener is plunged into ‘Somewhere Totally Else’, where chopped and disembodied voices populate a hazy dreamscape, evoking the cover art of Kid A if only it was set in the English countryside.

Great Spans is far more prone to surprises and jarring transitions and is, at its best, a compelling testament to imperfection and mistakes.

‘Shadowtackling’, by contrast, sounds outright confrontational, with swells of white noise occasionally swallowing the drone and erratic electronic beat which make up the backbone of the track. The opening notes of “Who Cares” are a sweet release when they finally arrive, soon giving way to the catharsis of Doyle’s mantric “Who cares / what they say?” refrain. The first side closes on the brooding synthpop of ‘Nothing at All’, which features a potent example of Doyle’s ability to elevate his songwriting with clever production: the half-formed voices which run in the background throughout the track fit perfectly with disarmingly direct lyrics about struggling to find the right words.

Elsewhere, the lack of any conceptual tether gives Doyle the freedom to explore rather more eccentric subject matter, like on ‘Semi-bionic’. Musically, the track earns comparison to Broadcast’s wonderful ‘Black Cat’ as shots of grisly static underpin a surprisingly tuneful piece of electronic pop. The lyrics, on the other hand, deal with “the contemporary concerns of the modern person… of the year 2050 or so”, and feel most reminiscent of Kate Bush’s approach of crafting an affecting narrative from a concept which seems ludicrous at first; as a complete song, it ends up arguably the best on the whole album. ‘Theme from Muddy Time’ occupies a similar sonic world, but with lyrics which are deeply anchored in the present: “Walking, perpetual day / throwing the hours away” over a sparse, repetitive instrumental sounds especially like the product of weeks locked up at home.

The freedom from concept works against the album at times too, however: without as much of an overarching theme to guide them, more texture-oriented pieces like “[a sea of thoughts behind it]” can feel unfocused at times. Likewise, tracks which might have benefitted from more development fall victim to the record’s devotion to instinct; I thought the intriguing but all too brief combination of harp and synth timbres on ‘St. Giles’ Hill’ was a particularly disappointing example of this.

Your Wilderness Revisited thrived on its vivid, thoughtful presentation of a world which was exciting but also clearly intimately familiar for Doyle. Great Spans of Muddy Time instead revels in its consistent ability to wrongfoot seemingly not only listeners, but its creator: the volatility, the feeling that Doyle is figuring out this music mere moments before it’s heard, is ultimately what makes it such an unusual and thrilling experience despite those moments which feel half-baked. The end result may not have been what was in mind, but William Doyle certainly has a lot to be proud of anyway.

Featured Image: William Doyle via Bandcamp.

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