"To be a person," said 15th-century Renaissance humanist Thomas More, "means to be faced every minute with the decision to live or die."
This past winter — as confessed on the Crash and Ride podcast — singer-songwriter Ryley Walker, confounded by depression and years of alcohol and drug abuse, decided to die. On a night off from his tour of the Rocky Mountain states with legendary folkie Richard Thompson — in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, no less — he swallowed a bottle of sleeping pills, envisioning "a romantic end" to his misery.
"Death hurts," Walker tells the Inlander, from this side of paradise. He lived. He woke up. "I was not prepared to face the darkness at that point," he admits.
Still, recognizing the gravity of his deteriorating condition ("I looked like a f—-ing catcher's mitt," he told Crash and Ride), Walker canceled a string of lucrative dates in Europe and ensconced himself — sans guitar — in a Nashville rehab clinic.
This past week, shortly after his 30th birthday, he celebrated five months of sobriety. "I'm learning to walk again," he says. "I'm a child, filled with wonder and scared shitless, [but] I have the tools to cope and move forward in life now."
Though sobriety has pruned the party antics and harum-scarum guise that once defined him ("I [didn't] want to be 19 gin and tonics Ryley anymore," he's said), Walker's poignant and imitable sense of humor, best showcased on his Twitter feed, remains intact. "I'd cry but life is too good and the high dose of antidepressants won't allow it," he tweeted. "Was gonna die. I'm alive."
Walker's meteoric rise (or fall) from rootsy troubadour to strung-out, fuzzed-out eccentric appears, to the uninitiated, like the stuff of rock cliches writ large. But a careful listen through his catalog reveals an evolution of uncommon depth and originality. The Rockford, Illinois, native's debut All Kinds of You (Walker calls it, unabashedly, "bad") and sophomore effort Primrose Green (again, "bad") are heavily indebted to the "minimalism meets brutal beauty" aesthetic of his guitar soli idols with a sonic (and visual) palette that trades in some decidedly retro motifs.
"My first couple records used nostalgia as the marketing point, and it worked," he says. "I had to pull myself out."
But things get interesting with 2016's Golden Sings That Have Been Sung (a "good" record, he finally grants), which finds Walker stretching out his (undeniable) chops into psychedelia and jazzy improvisation. It's a groovy and fluorescent leap à la John Martyn's Vietnam-era reinvention from pastoral poet (see Bless the Weather) to free-love psychonaut (Inside Out). Even the cover art, by day-glo cartoonist Brian Blomerth, seems to melt into new dimensions.
The "Ryley Walker sound," which he suggests (true to form) is "the best music for playing for your uncle," doesn't find its purest expression until the lilting sway of "In Castle Dome," the first track on last year's towering album Deafman Glance.
"Sonic Youth meets John Denver has always been the goal," says Walker, and, ironically or not, he's getting warmer. His affinity for the Chicago indie scene circa 1995-2003 ("I love that stuff so much," he gushes) nudges the songs into the thrilling intersection of deep-fried rock and jazz without a hint of imitative sentimentality. It's a deliberate step into a different river, one in which he could finally drop the mask of "jammy acoustic guy."
And yet, despite the confidence on display in his nimble fretwork and the band's nuanced accompaniment, the transformation betrays a bleak reality beneath. "Wish me better luck / Could use bus fare, too," sings Walker on "Can't Ask Why" after admitting, defeated, "It's not very fun / Being a fun person."
Being an artist of insatiable appetites and ambition, he didn't wallow in his sorrows long, recruiting friends Andrew Scott Young and Ryan Jewell for his second curveball of 2018: the recording of a full-length Dave Matthews Band cover album.
"I think there is definitely a tongue-in-cheek aspect to it, but we took it very seriously and worked really hard on it," says Walker.
To wit, Matthews himself has called it "badass" and "a tipped hat, maybe." In The Lillywhite Sessions, abandoned by Matthews for the sheen of Everyday and never released, Walker breathes new life into an artist long a target for the arbiters of taste, and pays homage to the sepia-toned days of Walker's youth in the Rust Belt when, as he claimed in Rolling Stone, "everybody liked Dave."
It's a record, says music journalist Grayson Haver Currin, "for anyone that's interested in the possibility of unapologetic honesty, of reckoning fully with who you were and are while on the pathway to whatever you may become."
Walker, neck-deep in a reckoning of his own, has "no clue" what tomorrow holds. But he's here, alive and present, he says, for the first time in his adult life.
"I've got more ambition than ever," he says. "I'm fully prepared to f—-ing rock." ♦
Ryley Walker with Wild Pink • Fri, Aug. 23 at 8 pm • $12-$14 • All ages • The Bartlett • 228 W. Sprague • thebartlettspokane.com • 747-2174