This photo is from the official album cover of ‘Great Spans of Muddy Time,’ owned by Tough Love Records.

Imagine, if you will, a destroyed landscape. There is an initial terrifying understanding that something that once was is now no more. Collapsed buildings and hollowed-out vehicles are the only memory of life piercing through the emptiness. However, given the time to dwell in the inescapable quiet, you begin to observe small details of the environment that suggest it may not be as empty as you thought. The small bumps poking through the sooty earth are actually the first stages of a fern fighting its way to the surface. The mossy overhangs left on structures are now seen as their own breathable entity rather than a sterile canvas on a wall. In fact, it soon becomes apparent that the environment is more alive than it ever was before.

After the release of his critically acclaimed album Your Wilderness Revisited in 2019, William Doyle started work on his next project, one that would have to live up to the painstaking refinement that was put into the previous album. However, a significant chunk of the way through his writing process, he suffered a catastrophic hard drive failure, leaving him with only a few cassettes-worth of ideas to work with. What resulted was Great Spans of Muddy Time, his most challenging but also most grounded release yet.

Almost immediately, it becomes clear that Great Spans is nothing like its predecessor. Doyle stripped everything back to its most basic form — mostly because he had to. However, Great Spans exhibits an element of freedom that the heavily produced and fine-tuned Your Wilderness Revisited was never afforded. Less time spent on trying to perfect every detail allowed Doyle to toy and experiment with every sound in his arsenal. And experiment he certainly did.

Great Spans has an aversion to the idea of a straightforward song, instead opting for each track to explore its own environment — often with no lyrics whatsoever. He mixes so many genres together it’s hard to keep track. Clearly, there is a new age inspiration that carried over from his last project, but the album has more of an art-pop angle as well. And don’t even get me started on the ambient influence here. I am tempted to call it an ambient album in its entirety, but that would discredit all the other ideas he manages to tie into it.

Just going off the sounds that emerge from Great Spans, it wouldn’t be all that difficult to describe it as lush, contemplative soundscaping. However, it’s hard to tell who the architect is in this case — Doyle, or the music itself. The answer is probably somewhere in between. Doyle definitely builds up the scenery that encompasses each track and yet it feels as though he lets the music fill the environment, planting seeds and then letting them grow.

However, to solely pay attention to the sounds would be to completely ignore the lyrical significance of Great Spans of Muddy Time. While yes, the album is certainly not lyrically packed, so to speak (especially compared to prior endeavors), what the lyrics do manage to achieve tonally adds a much more complex reading of the project as a whole. Whereas sonically the album speaks of a quiet beauty, its language evokes something devastating and morose.

Doyle comes across as completely stifled at every point, desperately clinging for some answer, some meaning to push him forward. On the track “Nothing At All,” he sings “What I meant, the feeling and the sentiment / Were buried beneath great lengths of nothing at all / What comes next if I’m unable to express? / I strongly suspect that it’s nothing at all.” The lines act in such a jarring juxtaposition to his voice. It’s difficult to accept that something so gorgeously clear is actually the sound of a man philosophically brutalizing himself.

As it turns out, the title of the album actually refers to a quote by British horticultural writer Monty Don talking about depression. However, I hesitate to simply call it a meditation on depression. If anything, it acts as Doyle’s escape from it, or at least the first step toward escaping it. By saying “fuck it” and diving headfirst into improvisational and exploratory compositions, he is able to turn his focus away from all that was lost and plant and cultivate the small remnants he has left. Doyle manages to craft a world after catastrophe, but one in which the struggle for life is teeming just under the surface.

Daily Arts Writer Drew Gadbois can be reached at gadband@umich.edu.