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Games – around in a maze – puzzle – rabbit hole – The vocabulary of Devon Williams’ visionary new album Gilding the Lily, in which music love runs amok, serves as fair warning. Anyone who loved the shimmery pop of 2011’s Euphoria will immediately recognize a lot of the same attributes here, and then begin to feel dizzy as Williams whisks around a series of corners but never seems closer to completing the square. Confident in his pop maneuvers, he believes he can wield them with broad, painterly strokes in music of fewer structural impositions. As it happens he’s right, but he demands trust, to the exact degree that Euphoria earned. At last, the day I waited for, when comparing his music to The Beach Boys requires no further clarification: Sunflower, Friends, Pet Sounds, these all figure in an album that contains beautiful schmaltz, confounding weirdness, monomania sanctioned by art, and, by accident or persistence, triumphs of harmony and orchestration. A solo artist has this kind of freedom, even within a single work, and Gilding the Lily forgoes none of the embellishments its title promises.
Don’t fear: Things calm down, eventually, but the purposefully disorienting “Deep in the Back of Your Mind” opens with a rush, fanfare of breathy synths and booming drums that fades to reveal the steady tick of a guitar underneath. It then cuts to a different, parallel scene: somewhat more pensive but still rhythmically insistent strumming, and the helium voice of the man behind the curtain, revealed of his own free will. (I first thought it was “Deep in the Back of My Mind,” because who would imagine its delights come from anywhere else, but “your” better indicates his generosity.) The song continues as a colorful effusion, David Hockney’s “A Bigger Splash” minus any semblance of stillness or restraint, but that strumming remains key. Of all the bold, crazy ideas on Gilding the Lily, the boldest and craziest is the possibility that Williams composes these songs on guitar. Quite a few begin with chords seemingly set to his own internal meter, and to imagine that somewhere in the sea of notes he’s juggling all the song’s ideas, it boggles the mind, makes him brilliant or insane, the latest madman composer of L.A. It’s the opposite of what happens at a Grant Hart show, when tiny inflections of the guitar’s “infinite roiling electricity, amorphously melodic,” speak his memory of the song’s original fullness. In Williams’ hands, this effect becomes an aspect of creation.
Beyond the strumming, which grounds the music even as it contains the secrets to all its most dazzling flights, lead guitars sample essential tones of the 70s and 80s, Elliot Easton one minute (on “Puzzle”), Robert Fripp the next (on “Rabbit Hole”), and before, after, and in between, every known sound that might be called jangly. It’s a veritable chorus of guitars, chorused, and the extent to which they envelop Williams’ voice and his alternately swampy and delicate arrangements is the extent to which they tame him. At times he has the imperiousness of the solo artist, and at others it seems like he wants to be subsumed by feelings of insignificance, or membership in a band. The opening song’s energy peaks when he shouts, “I still feel it!” and the listener retreats to give him room. Later he says nearly the same thing—“and when the feeling goes on, something so much more to uncover”—but the long, ungrammatical string of words held by the drowsy swirl of the music makes it sound like the inverse, an invitation to his languor. That’s from a song called “Flowers,” and it has so much of the sweetly declared but impermanent youth of R.E.M.’s “Green Grow the Rushes,” et al, that I keep thinking I can see him pointing to the things around him, a self-aware, futile time-freezing measure: Look at that building / look at my hands / amber waves of grain…
Awash but landing, no matter how, in 1985, Williams has made his Fables of the Reconstruction, or his Hounds of Love, or his Around the World in a Day, the answer depending not so much on the sound as on your conception of its author. I can see him as a resident of Paisley Park, likely to maintain his eccentricity to a degree The Three O’Clock didn’t upon their invitation to record there. Were Prince to once again turn his ears toward the world of indie pop, he’d find some worthy contenders: It’s funny that in 2009 I was still learning how to tell Williams apart from Jeremy Jay, was mostly struck by their concurrence, the sudden occasion of two L.A. songwriters bringing songs of vanished, romantic appeal, but now that they’ve moved to opposite extremes (Jay with his coldest and most minimal work on this year’s Abandoned Apartments, Williams with his most bursting and vibrant), their lone intersection is the way their idea of total release comes from something like “Computer Blue.” Jay’s eruption happens at the end of “Covered in Ivy,” while Williams gets there, tellingly, on “Deep in the Back of Your Mind.”
He mostly stays in his head, even when he looms large within it. He removes “popular” from pop music, because he prefers the creation of a teeming pop world to the creation of plausible hits. Still, he’s never indulgent, always working according to a design, however slowly revealed, packing his ideas tight and, with the exception of the relatively unrestrained opening and closing tracks (four and five minutes, respectively), bringing in every song around the three-minute mark. Piano-flecked ballad “All I Have To Do” contains the kind of pastiche of 70s sincerity that Stephen Malkmus sometimes risks. “Around in a Maze” and “Puzzle” are mere games of love metaphor and pop song naming, as they’re the most quickly recognizable songs here and could be retitled, in familiar fashion, “Jennifer” and “Lena,” for the names that recur throughout. The former anchors his strumming to the album’s jauntiest, easiest beat, while bass curlicues and chiming piano turn it into music and absurd strings carry it to the realm of daydream. The latter suggests Buddy Holly living to record “Jessie’s Girl” with The Cars, as Williams’ taste flickers high and low, never to be quenched.
His ambitions extend mainly to the music’s density, not thematic concerns (except for love), so Gilding the Lily ends up feeling a bit less momentous as an overall piece than XTC’s Skylarking or other similarly ripe pop albums. That’s okay, because the album lives in the tension between the genius composer’s solitary visions and his ability to deliver himself, a place, redesigned in the post-classical era by Wilson and Parks, where fascinating music continues to be made (see: Ken Stringfellow). Some might frame it as an issue of head and heart—it’s common, and untrue, to say that a musician who lives in his head, or demands the listener’s, has no heart—and place Janelle Monáe there too, though to anyone who says she’s not writing hits, I’d suggest questioning the apparatus that makes things popular. But that’s beside the point at the Slumberland level of the music machine, where the line between semi-popular and unknown hardly registers. The good news for Devon Williams is that his fantasy world will sound amazing regardless how many people are sharing in it. It’s inherently private, but lovely enough to sustain the minor masses, if they’re interested.
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