William Tyler & the Impossible Truth: Secret Stratosphere

William Tyler’s songcraft was forged in the South, but it needed space to grow, so he set his sights on the West like so many musical pioneers before him. The music of the Nashville-born, Los Angeles-based guitarist now evokes the desert vistas of the Southwest as much as the flatlands of Middle Tennessee, but there’s also a sparseness in keeping with the stretched-out landscapes and wide sky. The sense of isolation central to works like 2020’s New Vanitas and 2021’s “Frozen Shelter,” a 40-minute ambient composition that owes as much to the Caretaker as the KLF’s Chill Out, was inevitably influenced by the pandemic, and Tyler’s work has since tilted back toward collaboration. Secret Stratosphere, a new live album recorded in Huntsville, Alabama in 2021, is his first record credited to a full band, dubbed the Impossible Truth.

Each member of the band embodies a corner of the homegrown Nashville music scene that exists adjacent to—and in spite of—Music Row. Drummer Brian Kotzur is a veteran of countless bands, including Country Westerns and Silver Jews, but he’s most infamous outside the city’s limits thanks to his starring role in Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers. Bassist Jack Lawrence is a longstanding player in the Third Man extended universe, while steel guitarist Luke Schneider synthesizes Cosmic American Music and new age. The Impossible Truth moniker might be new, but the relationships here are old and effortless, and Tyler’s been collaborating with his bandmates in some capacity or another for years.

As a collective, the Impossible Truth maintains the spiritual minimalism of Tyler’s solo work while expanding the sound. Kotzur’s drums roll like thunder on the horizon on “Our Lady of the Desert,” grafting a heavy backbeat that transforms the gentle Goes West cut into an enlivened Southern rock groover. The interplay of Tyler’s looping on lead guitar maintains a post-rock ethereality, but Lawrence’s chugging bassline is beamed straight out of an Allman Brothers set. Kotzur’s steady rhythmic foundation gives “Gone Clear” from 2016’s Modern Country a new intensity, its lush and twinkling layers replaced with fuzz and sweat. The Tyler recordings that most prefigure the Impossible Truth are the full band versions “Whole New Dude” and “We Can’t Go Home Again” from 2014’s Lost Colony EP. Both are reprised here, but there’s a restless spirit and livewire energy that the studio versions couldn’t capture.

In one of the set’s most unexpected moments, the band mutates the contemplative twang of “Highway Anxiety” into an interpretation of Kraftwerk’s “Radioactivity.” The distinctive electronic tone of Kraftwerk’s original is here substituted for throbbing drum and bass, while Tyler’s impressionistic guitars fill in on vocal duty. The result is similar to the spaced-out wanderings of Darkside, with a forceful beat scaffolding ethereal loops, but there’s a touch of whimsy, thanks to a sprinkle of glockenspiel. Tyler has often been credited with a kraut influence, but he disarms any pretensions after the performance: “That’s our favorite Blue Öyster Cult song!”

Tyler makes a similar crack before “Area Code 601,” the album’s finale: “We’re going to end with a kind of Hawkwind meets Charlie Daniels Band number,” an apt distillation of his current style. The song, a long-time staple of his live sets that has gone previously unreleased, is a nod to both of his homelands. 601 is the area code of Jackson, Mississippi, but the title is also a riff on Area Code 615, the instrumental supergroup of Nashville studio titans that came together in the wake of Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline. Almost 50 years later, Area Code 615’s forward-thinking synthesis of down-home country and funky drum breaks is almost startling to hear. Their spirit is alive and well in Secret Stratosphere, a record that exudes the kind of off-the-cuff inventiveness and open-minded collaboration that can only come from years of fine-tuned experience.

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William Tyler & the Impossible Truth: Secret Stratosphere