It’s been six years since the Bournemouth-based musician William Doyle abandoned the East India Youth moniker and took to releasing music under his own name. Along with this change of name came something of a stylistic regeneration. First, he moved away from the synth-pop flavours of his earlier work and indulged purely in his love for ambient music in a series of minor projects, before releasing his first full-length album as William Doyle in 2019, Your Wilderness Revisited. Here, he placed himself firmly in the lineage of British art-rock, inspired by the likes of David Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy and the early records of Brian Eno (who even featured on the song ‘Design Guide’).
Now he’s returned with an album that shows yet further artistic development. It’s a playfully loose approach to genre that feels worlds away from the strict cohesiveness of prior works. The album’s title, Great Spans of Muddy Time, is taken from another, stranger influence on the album – that of Monty Don, the lead presenter of BBC’s ‘Gardeners’ World’. Don used this phrase to describe his experiences with depression, something that resonated deeply with Doyle as he worked on the record.
It’s easy to see why Doyle would be taken with Don. Your Wilderness Revisited was a Proustian ode to the blissful greenery of suburban Britain, about as horticulturally focused as music gets this side of Mort Garson’s Plantasia. References to the British landscape still abound in his new album, whether it’s a yearning for the memory of a trip to the Pennines in opener ‘I Need to Keep You in My Life’, a song that swells from childlike, arpeggiated synths into cosmic grandeur, or his framing of ‘St. Giles’ Hill’ as a place of sanctuary. But whilst it’s impossible to separate the lush, organic textures of Doyle’s soundscapes from the verdancy of England’s pleasant pastures, it’s Don’s description of a sustained emotional state that most informs Great Spans of Muddy Time. This is reflected in Doyle’s introspective lyrics, often expressing his own struggles with depression.
Your Wilderness Revisited was the work of a perfectionist, as structurally and sonically tight as possible. Great Spans of Muddy Time finds Doyle in new realms of abstraction, with a record that can feel formless, sometimes almost messy. After the sumptuous crescendo of ‘I Need To Keep You In My Life’ and the jaunty, ironic melancholy of lead single ‘And Everything Changed (But I Feel Alright)’, neither of which would have felt especially out of place on his last LP, we come to the album’s first instrumental, ‘Somewhere Totally Else’. We’re quickly struck not just by its hauntological ambience – Boards of Canada’s Music Has the Right to Children isn’t what I usually think when I think William Doyle – but even more so by the subtle glitches and warped vocal samples that threaten to throw that ambience into disarray.
That disarray is realized on the subsequent track ‘Shadowtackling’, a flurry of industrial electronics that’s more Einsturzende than Eno. Jarring stylistic shifts and blends like this permeate the album in a way that the listener never fully gets used to – the shimmering synths of ‘Rainfalls’ just before the squelching drums of ‘New Uncertainties’, or late-album highlight ‘Semi-bionic’, and its mix of harsh, metallic textures with Doyle’s typically pastoral vocal melodies. The music here is raw, occasionally even oppressively so – a far cry from the pristine beauty of Your Wilderness Revisited – but it never ceases to be compelling.
The comparative looseness in structure and sound on Great Spans of Muddy Time is, in part, due to a hard-drive crash that left many of the songs Doyle had laboured over for the past couple of years lost. He explained that this provoked him to reassess the way he worked on his music: ‘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’. It’s this sense of liberation, both artistic and emotional, that comes to define the album. The penultimate track ‘Theme From Muddy Time’ is, lyrically, perhaps the most explicit exploration of the depression that made Monty Don’s words feel so appropriate to the musician, as he pleads to himself to ‘show some love for myself’. As if to answer that plea, the song concludes by erupting into a total euphoria of analogue synthesis, a musical catharsis so strong it seems to make sense of the 11 tracks that precede it.
The final track ‘[a sea of thoughts behind it]’ serves as a denouement to the record. Perhaps the most purely beautiful of the instrumentals on the album, it’s a perfect, meditative final track that seems to provide both Doyle and the listener with some sense of emotional closure. Great Spans of Muddy Time can be a surprising, even perplexing listen at first. But by the end, it feels impossible to disagree with Doyle’s assertion that, with this newfound freedom in his approach to music-making, ‘for the first time in my career, the distance between what I hear and what the listener hears is paper-thin’.