One spin through the record felt like meeting a group of old friends for the first time. With his latest album, Wild Azaleas and Other Tall Tales, Tyler Key has crafted a collection of story songs steeped in tradition and marching steadfastly forward. Fresh yet familiar. Comforting yet surprising. The LP spans the narrative spectrum from amusing anecdotes in “Spice of Life” to murderous epics in “Last Rites”, with each song carving its own seat at the campfire.
It’s no small feat to write an album that’s rich in lyricism and ultimately joyful. Each tall tale comes filtered through the voice of a unique narrator with their own set of circumstances to navigate, giving Key the agency to express himself through an ever-evolving cast of characters.
Tyler, who was kind enough to sit down for an interview, summed up his approach to the album as, “Write about somebody else but make it feel like you’re writing about yourself. Because that’s what empathy is. That’s how you connect to anybody.” This liberating device doesn’t come at the cost of vulnerability. The songs come across as deeply personal, showing a reverence for family and a restlessness for discovery. But these thoughts are rarely inward-facing. There’s no naval-gazing or self-loathing going on here. The speaker in each song is considering their place in their world and taking us along for the ride.
In the last song of the album, “Wings”, we find Key at his most autobiographical, removing any remaining divide between the artist and the audience. This sudden shift doesn’t just serve as a reward for the listener—it invites us back into the stories we’ve already heard with a deeper understanding of where they came from. We know his Father who may or may not have dodged the draft in “Wild Azaleas” is in fact a mechanic. We know his Mother still keeps her tired eyes on the prize after years of work at a factory. We know every character in the album wants something and we feel the entire weight of that longing by the time he sings the heart-wrenching final lines of the record.
While his lyrics sit in the forefront, Key’s thoughtful vocals share the sepia-tinted spotlight with a rock-solid instrumental foundation. His brother’s soaring guitar leads infuse barroom-banger enthusiasm into songs like “Eyes on the Prize” and “Take a Hike”. Mournful pedal steel licks and keyboard chimes provide texture throughout, creating a pastoral atmosphere for the stories to unfold within. Above all, there’s a spirit of spontaneity to the album which was recorded live over the course of just 3 days. Paired with such contemplative writing, this energetic accompaniment evokes the feeling of flying down a state route in a 69’ Chevelle pondering your lot in life on a sunny southern day.
Regardless of where you grew up or the family you come from, there’s plenty to relate to in these songs. As Key explained, “Family and relationships all talk about the same stuff on a different slant. You deal with the same kinds of emotions in a different way.” There’s a sincerity and intent to each line that shows a unique attunement to these relationships. An awareness of character and consequence that enflames the human experience.
Listening to Wild Azaleas and Other Tall Tales is akin to driving back home after being gone too long. The road is refreshing because the curves of the pavement have been hiding in the back of your mind. However loaded with memory and regret, the journey is joyous—golden lines leading you somewhere you didn’t know you needed to be.