Beach Boy: Springs Eternal By William Doyle

Doyle's latest may be his most immediate and most earnest yet, finds Alexander Leissle

Photo Credit: Parri Thomas

Plenty has been said and written about the scholarly constitution of William Doyle’s music. For listeners who prefer their albums to be abundant with ideas, Doyle offers plenty. Let’s call the roll: Your Wilderness Revisited (2019), an art-pop treatise on suburban life, architecture and social politics, infused with folk and new wave, sung in the register of a chancel-sitting Neil Tennant; Slowly Arranged (2022), a 200-minute collection of ambient, drone and collage pieces “composed in entirely generative ways”; Total Strife Forever (2014), the electro-soul bardery which held in the slipstream behind James Blake (and yes, it puns a Foals record); Great Spans of Muddy Time (2021) and its devotional submission to the altar of Berlin-era Bowie and Eno; and an album sincerely titled Culture of Volume (2015).

Doyle’s ability to compose and fold together a particularly British pop history is both the attraction and infamy of his work – think a kind of Ableton Tarantino. It obviously works, particularly when barely masked. On Great Spans, the anthemic pastiche of ‘And Everything Changed (But I Feel Alright)’ struts like ‘Love Comes Quickly’ and soars like ‘Heroes’; ‘[a sea of thoughts behind it]’ paints pointillist landscapes which flicker like Tangerine Dream in high definition. On Your Wilderness Revisited, ‘An Orchestral Depth’ conjures Steve Reich in the thick of a nightmare, then repeats the trick for Harold Budd in ‘Full Catastrophe Living’, beginning with a dancing piano sample and ending with shuddering brass swells. But such postmodern peacocking can also become its own kind of smoke and mirrors: the constant and knowing historicism in his music – presenting an extensive conveyor belt of nostalgia, reference and inflection – can also distract from the songs’ visceral feeling and pleasure.

So now we have Springs Eternal, which arrives ten years after Doyle’s breakthrough under his East India Youth moniker. If his restless approach to influence has become a constant signature, and exhausted its initial thrill, then try not to be surprised by the start of the album’s second track, ‘Now In Motion’. Out of a beat-machine click rips a brash blues riff, Doyle’s guitar and voice clearer than ever while chanting the song’s title like a mantra. The coda slides into a funkier shuffle, crescendos in strands of distortion, then plays straight into ‘Relentless Melt’, all sliding riffs and wandering bass lines as if written by an introvert Josh Homme. The two together make opener ‘Garden of the Morning’ – a gorgeous, gradually unravelling weave of monophonic synth, plucked guitar and multitrack vocals – seem rather meek.

Perhaps this is a more immediate record. It’s certainly more earnest (and Doyle’s work is increasingly so since Great Spans). Vocals sit higher in the mix than ever, instrumentation is bright and forthcoming rather than buried within itself, and there’s an emboldened feel to his lyrical tone. “You could have it all if you want”, he teases on ‘Surrender Yourself’, a mathy lump of 00s indie rock that imitates an advert for an off-world escape plan (“Do you want to augment it with us?”) as bending guitar notes scrape the bottom of the song. ‘Eternal Spring’ opens like the nightmare-funhouse bounce of Billie Eilish’s ‘Ilomilo’, but swaps its sense of submersion for a more reserved new wave bop, with straight acoustic strumming patterns and a pretty hook floating above Doyle’s strut. When ‘Relentless Melt’ breaks down, drum fills and warm keyboard chords hang loose around a woozy sub stretching and warping like jelly – then the whole song collapses, swallowed down a sonic drain. Who’d have thought this could be, well, fun?

That said, there’s a nagging sense that the joy in Springs Eternal exists in spite of Doyle’s efforts rather than because of them. Its lyrical focus is directed at a sense of doom, permacrisis, helplessness. But much of his imagery, in seeking immediacy, is more less than less-is-more. In ‘Relentless Melt’, things are “turning to dust” and “coming over the horizon”; “I feel the present and past”, he sagely tells us. “The ticket gets hysterical on morning news”, he sings on ‘Cannot Unsee’, “as glossolalia of the feed becomes profuse / and the sidebar serving us is increasingly extreme”, twisting arcane language around a trite idea – as if only just discovering the malign influence of populist media – in staccato delivery befitting of small-town musical theatre. The track then takes off into a rocking chorus of fuzzy guitars and cooing “aahs” like an AI generator fed prompts of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and Innerspeaker. If that wasn’t sufficiently off-putting, the next track opens with a three-chord loop fingerpicked on nylon guitar over sounds of lapping waves. You know, like that bit in Love Island when Things Get Emotional.

Survive this middle section of the record and rewards await. ‘A Long Life’ returns to Doyle’s more Reichian past, all fluttering bleeps, chopped piano and saxophone notes skipping around the mix. ‘Because of a Dream’ dares to try fingerpicking again, this time in roaming major-minor shifts that are bright and unadorned as Doyle questions life after death. Plainness, this time, is pleasing: “Because of this dream, by which I mean dying, I cannot be there to answer the door”, he sings compellingly; “What would proof do for us? To know it was nothing, how fruitless the fruit.”

We’re left with a frustrating, uneven record that can never quite decide what it is, trying as it does to jam lots of different things together, presenting by turns intriguing dissonance, winning marriages, or a muddled feeling. In ‘Eternal Spring’, a brief passage interrupts the song’s polite bounce. For what can only be a few bars, a deathly-distorted melody groans and wails rising from some deep. In an instant we have the whole: despite all his earnest efforts and smarts, there’s something enigmatic buried in there that we can’t quite reach, that defies our study. This, after all, is the threat to Doyle’s earnestness: vulnerability – of expression to judgement and ambition to missteps. In this way Springs Eternal, despite its lyrical dread and disorientation, sounds like his most fearless record yet.

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