Album Review: Sean Tyler — ‘NOR THERE’

I first found out about Sean Tyler from one of the great No Touching Sessions filmed at Gabe’s way back in 2020. Tyler’s been performing regularly around Iowa City ever since, and recently played at the Refocus Film Festival. Released in September, NOR THERE is his first official collection of songs since his 2020 self-titled debut EP.

NOR THERE consists of seven tracks: four songs, followed by three instrumental versions of those same songs. “Drive Me Home” begins the release with the spaced-out feel of some early Black Keys tracks. But where the Black Keys always searched for pop simplicity, Tyler prevailingly relies on rummaging around this singular reverb-laden riff. His voice is buried deep in the mix here, punctuated by Chris Jensen’s drumming. Both deeply raw and delicately polished, the track succeeds at capturing Tyler’s individual mix of pop, rock, jazz and even sludge influences.

Performed live, “All I Want” is a full-on pop deconstruction, falling perpetually into its own melancholic current. Here, with Jensen’s drumming and Tyler’s vocal overlays, it becomes brighter — joyful even. The lyrics make a point to contain no resolution, seeming instead to revel in getting the tone and feeling right rather than the meaning. This has the effect of making Tyler’s voice another melodic ingredient rather than some guiding force.

“For You” centers an acoustic guitar riff that wouldn’t be out of place on some early 2000s quasi-metal releases. But Tyler takes its chorus from brooding to the equally beguiling bittersweet.

After “Comfort” — a quick, menacing musical interlude held together by a continual cymbal crash — Tyler runs the initial three songs back again. With their lyrics intact, Tyler presents these songs as straight pop-rock dirges. But without his voice, they become instrumental jaunts that consistently hit all the right blue notes and jazz chords, all fuzzed out and vibrating.

The decision of an artist to present songs without their lyrics on the same release can often lead to that boring binary comparison between the two that screams for a qualitative assessment. NOR THERE seems to question that notion. Here it seems Tyler wants to treat them as companions, or even continuations. There are no new fireworks in these instrumental versions, which have the exact same run times as the lyrical versions, but that may well be the point. Without his voice to guide, the hooks become fuzzier and the melodies richer.

“For You” in particular morphs into an indie-pop meditation easily imagined as part of the end credits of a ’90s-era David Fincher film. What I find most compelling in his music is the real sense of departure, of song as ultimate possibility. And as the album’s name implies, Sean Tyler feels it too, positioning these songs as existing outside of the traditional song and genre structures — music that is gracefully neither entirely here, nor is it really there.

This article was originally published in Little Village’s November 2023 issue.