With six albums beneath his belt and having logged too much mileage to count through the years on American, European, and Australian tours, Hayward Williams is nothing short of a road-hardened veteran folk musician by this point. Though his experience and his bursting catalog of timeless Americana compositions is enough to justify more of the same, the old dog is up to new tricks through gradual-yet-unmistakable growth that’s displayed on each new effort he adds to his arsenal.
Saturday, more than three years after the singer-songwriter’s five-show residency at Anodyne’s Walker’s Point Roastery in support of 2014’s The Reef, Williams will return to the coffee shop to play the release show for Pretenders, his seventh album and his most interesting artistic departure yet. Recorded by the Milwaukee troubadour and a small cast of collaborators during an extended stay at Midwest Sound in Rockford, Illinois last October, the 10-song release finds Williams visiting places he’s never been before, and never sounding better while doing so.
Ambling opener “How You Been” brings Pretenders into motion and sets the record’s understated and emotional tone with Williams’ hushed and barren vocals being bolstered by the subtle swell of a Hammond B3 organ and soft, artful auxiliary percussion. The second song (“Come Undone”) and the album’s penultimate song (“Meet Me Halfway”) nod in the general direction of Beck’s Sea Change as the bandleader’s rich timbre elevates tragic and experienced lyrics above stripped-down instrumentation. Of course, it’s not all deliberately deconstructed doom and gloom. “Only Love” is a comparably upbeat offering with an optimistic messages that swirls with the sharp notes of the organ. “In The Fire” totes an equally shimmering tone.
Meanwhile, the organ, the noodling guitar, and Williams’ uncharacteristically soulful vocals add a smooth sheen on “Probably Never Maybe Tonight.” However, the 10-track traversing of introspection and acceptance ends in the same spiritual territory in which it started, as the title track brings Williams’ most grown-up, vulnerable and fully-realized work to its delicate, mournful conclusion. If there was any doubt before, Hayward Williams absolutely proves he’s the genuine article with Pretenders. Before Williams releases the album (via Why River Records) at Anodyne’s Walker’s Point Roastery on Saturday, November 25, hear Pretenders in its entirety now.