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William Doyle
Great Spans of Muddy Time Will Ainsley , March 30th, 2021 08:24

Pocket symphonies and mantra-like repetitions conspire to make William Doyle's new full-lengther into an epic proposition, for Will Ainsley

In an interview conducted with Stewart Lee for The Guardian, Shirley Collins recalls her grandparents’ style of singing during bombing raids: "plain, ordinary singing that really sank in". I don’t know why this phrase stuck with me but it popped into my head while listening to William Doyle’s excellent new record Great Spans Of Muddy Time. Both lyrics and singing style on this album have an unadorned feel. Like Mark Hollis, Nora Guthrie, or Collins herself, Doyle’s unashamed emotion is perfectly accentuated by a clear, ‘plain, ordinary’ voice. The sincerity of lines like "I need to keep you in my life" or "I feel alright, I believe" is almost unsettling.

2019’s Your Wilderness Revisited relayed a kind of outward inspection that included lyrics like "I went for a walk" or "I felt it cement my place in it all". Doyle refigures this into an emotional introspection on Great Spans Of Muddy Time. Whereas Your Wilderness Revisited is focused around outside frameworks like architecture, suburbia, and parks, a song such as ‘Who Cares’ with its mantra-like repetition of ‘who cares what they say?’ is like an emotional rewilding that rings out within an immersive, almost claustrophobic bed of glittering electronics. Doyle’s voice sounds clear and true, with the sentiment arriving at an almost elemental emotional state: an absence of care. This song is like a 21st century mechanical music reimagining of Lesley Gore’s ‘You Don’t Own Me’ or ‘It’s My Party’.

Although 1960s girl groups don’t immediately spring to mind when listening to William Doyle, there’s something about the emotional honesty of some of the lyrics and singing on Great Spans Of Muddy Time that recalls how groups like The Ronettes, The Girlfriends, or The Crystals could sing songs wreathed in uncertainty and doubt, using plain language in a heartfelt, direct delivery. In the stunning lead single, the compact, kaleidoscopic pop symphony of ‘And Everything Changed (But I Feel Alright)’, the passionate repetition of the line ‘I feel alright I believe’ in the chorus suggests a narrator trying to convince him or herself of something; the word ‘believe’ can imply both conviction and faith/uncertainty.

The sense of pain or anguish just lapping at the edges of the music is used to great effect on Great Spans Of Muddy Time sometimes even wordlessly. In the introduction of ‘And Everything Changed (But I Feel Alright), just before Doyle starts singing, the intake of breath seems more in reaction to pain, rather than in readiness to sing. I’m wary of placing such things in a metanarrative but you could perhaps see Doyle, Richard Dawson, and maybe even Phoebe Bridgers and Shirley Collins to a lesser extent, as a reaction to the cynicism present in sprechgesang-style vocals that use wordplay and cultural references with a snarl.

It might be remiss to form a piece about an album with many instrumental passages around discussion of the vocals and lyrics but I think it almost goes without saying that Great Spans Of Muddy Time sounds incredible. As with every release Doyle puts his name to, the sound design is simply epic. ‘Semi-bionic’ fuses haunting, almost choral-sounding singing with gorgeous, glitchy plumes of distortion. Every synthesizer line on the album crackles and sizzles with life. ‘Nothing At All’ trips along like a forgotten minimal wave record made in a shed in 1980-something. Dinky drum machines, a reverb-drenched string machine, and a slightly simpering chord progression suggest a miniature Pet Shop Boys at their most knowingly downcast. For some reason ‘Nothing At All’ also reminds me melodically of ‘New Age Girl’, the song Lance writes in Detectorists.

Electronic and acoustic elements, Doyle’s voice included, throughout the album sound completely compatible. They appear to sit flush with each one another. There also seems to be a sense of the music always threatening to unfurl into something weird and unexpected. Kurt Vile has an anecdote about Neil Young saying to him about Crazy Horse’s live set, ‘oh we can go to outer space whenever we want’. Doyle has that same tendency to explode. It’s present in the sheets of white noise in ‘Shadowtackling’ or that eyelash-singeing guitar solo in ‘Everything Changed (And I Feel Alright)’ that seems to roar out of nowhere sounding like the mewing of seagulls.

William Doyle’s Great Spans Of Muddy Time fuses the emotional honesty of 1960s girl groups with muscular electronica to create an atmosphere of absolute sincerity and uncertainty soaked in pop yearning. It is an album that truly sinks in.