William Doyle, previously known as East India Youth, released his newest album on March 19. Immediately, “Great Spans of Muddy Time” makes its melancholic presence known; the title, lifted from a quote about depression by English gardener Monty Don, joins forces with the surreal 17th century d’Hondecoeter painting on the album’s cover to prepare listeners for an idiosyncratic listening experience. Building on the foundations laid in his acclaimed 2019 album “Your Wilderness Revisited,” Doyle uses his personal brand of art-pop and burgeoning compositional talent as a medium for deep introspection.
Given its bleak premise, it is fitting that the record’s conception was mired in setbacks and difficulty. Inspired by time spent in therapy following bouts of depression, Doyle composed and recorded numerous songs only to have them suddenly erased in a catastrophic hard drive malfunction. The only remnants of the project were saved on tape, thanks to Doyle’s experimentation with the saturation and pitch control afforded by storage on audiocassette. Speaking on the tragedy, Doyle explained “Instead of feeling a loss that I could no longer craft these pieces into flawless ‘Works of Art,’ I felt intensely liberated that they had been set free from my ceaseless tinkering.” He went as far as to say, “If I’d have worked on these songs more, I might have even bludgeoned all of the greatness out of them.”
There may be more than a grain of truth to Doyle’s fear of perfectionism. The record possesses an improvisational, unrestrained quality that serves to heighten and deepen the peaks and troughs of its emotional impact, evident in moments of ebullient synth layering and off-kilter instrumentation. However, the lack of polish very rarely detracts from the whole; in fact, the semblance of imperfection only adds to the rawness and vulnerability of Doyle’s writing. The risk inherent to publishing unfinished work is mitigated by Doyle’s near mastery of his craft; in the hands of a lesser talent, the gamble could have easily missed the mark.
A fine example of this endearing jankiness is the album’s opening track, “I Need to Keep You in My Life,” which serves as an excellent microcosm of the work as a whole in its combination of inspired tunefulness and charming strangeness. At first, a simple melody showcases Doyle’s disarming falsetto while twinkling synths give lullaby-like support. Gradually, panned stabs of acoustic guitar fade in, and droning synth notes appear. Before long, the underlying tracks become more and more bizarre; discordant chords linger and oscillate in pitch while drumsticks click together disjointedly. The peculiarity of the song culminates in a brief animal-like squeal followed by random, jangly guitar notes. What makes the piece intriguing, as opposed to disconcerting or obnoxious, is its subtlety. Upon first listen, it’s very easy to miss the eccentricities — the beauty of the final cumulation of the track forgives, nay, validates the quirks.
An astute reconciliation of contemporary pop songwriting and retro production, the combination of Doyle’s synth mastery, clever melodies and affecting vocals at times brings to mind the EDM/indie solo efforts of intermittent Chili Pepper John Frusciante, and at others the ambient works of Brian Eno (who featured on a track in “Your Wilderness Revisited”) and William Basinski. The heavily distorted backwards guitar solo of “And Everything Changed (But I Feel Alright)” and the untethered, jagged despair of the instrumental “Shadowtackling” plumb the depths of emotional torment with a Frusciante-esque bashfulness, while the grainy maelstrom of “A Forgotten Film” and the moderate, twinkling “[a sea of thoughts behind it]” lean markedly toward the ambient.
Though the refined touch of his creative talent is omnipresent, Doyle recognizes the need for breathing space; tracks like the aptly titled “Somewhere Totally Else” and the pulsating “A Forgotten Film” are comparatively soft instrumental compositions. In these voiceless tracks, Doyle’s expert hand is evident. Both tracks are intricately composed and rendered, and neither risks boring the listener: while “Somewhere” features an unnerving reversed recording of Doyle speaking, the mismatched grooves of “Forgotten” are buried in a fog of analog delay and tape decay. The more reserved instrumental tracks are a welcome break from the record’s more impactful singles and features — although at times this division is incongruous, which detracts from the record’s cohesion.
Interestingly, some have pointed to hints of irony throughout the work. Though the extent of the jest is debatable, whatever humor is present floats gingerly beneath Doyle’s sublime layering and production, leaving the listener wondering if “Great Spans of Muddy Time” is by turns a work of serious artistic depth and one of gentle humor. The slight ridiculousness of the soaring guitar solo in “And Everything Changed (But I Feel Alright),” for example, proffers a levity that ensures the record doesn’t collapse under the weight of its melancholy introspection, and the tale of futuristic woe and saccharine synth lines of the tongue-in-cheek “Semi-bionic” pay homage to synth-pop greats with a Conchordian conviviality. However, it’s difficult to call “Great Spans” an ironic album; while moments of gaiety balance the record’s sentimental spectrum, praise should be focused on the more stirring aspects of Doyle’s melodic and compositional efforts.
What “Great Spans of Muddy Time” lacks in polish, it more than makes up for in raw originality. Born from ashes, the record’s insightful composition and distinct eccentricity ensure its status as a resounding success and career high for Doyle.