Four years ago, William Doyle retired the East India Youth moniker that had brought him fame, critical recognition and a Mercury Prize nomination. After spending a couple of years experimenting with ambient music and taking stock of what his music career meant to him, this solo venture culminated in late 2019 with Your Wilderness Revisited: a dazzling, crystal-clear vision of English suburban eccentricity made into golden, splendid musical art.
Now, Doyle returns once more with his most powerful work to date. Where his previous albums, especially Your Wilderness Revisited, showcased an artist on the precipice of true greatness, Great Spans of Muddy Time – named after a rather apt description for depression, coined by English naturalist Monty Don – is the work of a powerful artist in their prime.
While “it has its seeds in Robert Wyatt, early [Brian] Eno, Robyn Hitchcock, and Syd Barrett,” as explained by Doyle, Muddy Time is much more than a tapestry woven from important influences. Whereas before these names were included to put his work into context, or to give it a kind of sonic lineage, now those names are here to show how distinctive Doyle’s work is in the great canon of English Art Rock, a recognition of his place amongst the greats.
The big moments on Muddy Time come regularly, and they start early: “I Need To Keep You In My Life” is a skewed, David Lynchian take on the Righteous Brothers’ megahit “Unchained Melody” that’s so preposterous you’ll begin to think he’s having you on.
Next up, “And Everything Changed (But I Feel Alright)” is an exercise in the kind of ironic soft-rock restraint Arctic Monkeys practiced across much of Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, tempered with a ballsy bravado that comes from complete confidence in your art (although the outrageous guitar solo nearly pushes tongue through cheek).
Aside from the handful of vocal-led songs, the album is mostly made up of the kind of wordless music Doyle has professed a love for over the years, especially the seminal, revolutionary instrumental electronica found on second sides of Bowie’s Low and “Heroes” albums. “Somewhere Totally Else”, album closer “(a sea of thoughts behind it)” and mid-album highlight “New Uncertainties” all show how keenly practiced Doyle’s ear is when it comes to constructing vast sculptures of elegant sound without needing to resort to using his incredibly expressive voice.
The key track that truly shows the power of Doyle’s craft would be “Semi-Bionic”, which is buried deep in the second half of the album. Much like the finest work of many of Doyle’s favourite artists – but most specifically Alexander Tucker – “Semi-Bionic” fuses the human and the machine, the organic and the synthetic, and reconstructs the composite elements of modern human living into something true, something whole.
In many ways, Muddy Time is William Doyle’s least accessible, most sonically oppressive collection to date, with no room for anything less than complete engagement, and utter focus. The ambient passages are ruthlessly short, as though shorn from a much more appealing, much more inviting whole, and most of the vocal tracks manage to be both exquisitely English and curiously other, as though they were summoned into being by a Replicant from Milton Keynes. Across the whole collection, Muddy Time is bewildering, gorgeous and riveting in equal measure, a grand collage of the finest moments of soft-focus thinking-person's rock from the past 50 years.
A great man once said, “I’m eternally grateful / To my past influences / But they will not free me / I am not diseased”. Having previously recognised, celebrated and paid homage to those that have gone before, with Great Spans of Muddy Time William Doyle has now become his own man, capable of producing work on an equal level to those who have come before. It’s exciting to think of what might come next.