It’s possible that more than half the people who’ll read this review have never even heard of Butch Walker. But he’s been one of my favorite artists for as far back as I can remember. When I was just a teenager he was the lead guitarist in a hair band I was really into called Southgang, whose albums more or less still hold up today, unlike so much hair metal. Then there were a couple of short-lived bands called The Floyd’s and Floyd’s Funk Revival, which each released one album. I was still in hair metal mode when those were released, so I wasn’t a big fan of them at the time but I like them very much today. Next came Marvelous 3, which was the three guys from Southgang minus the singer. With M3, as fans call them, Butch stood front and center as lead vocalist. They released three albums before they broke up and they were fantastic. I was very disappointed when they broke up. But then came Butch’s first solo album, Left of Self-Centered. It was a power pop explosion and a remarkable one at that. And Butch has been flying solo ever since, although he released a side-project album as the band 1969. The only album he’s ever released that was lost on me was his last full-length release, The Spade. I still can’t pinpoint why I wasn’t crazy about it. I’m sure one reason was that it didn’t have any ballads, just one song that was kind of a ballad but not really. And most of my favorite Butch Walker songs have been his ballads. Fortunately, his new album, Afraid of Ghosts, is full of ballads, more than making up for the lack of them on The Spade.
The title track, “Afraid of Ghosts,” opens the album. It’s a tender song consisting largely of acoustic guitars and piano. “He said I’m coming to terms with a ghost / Learning to deal / I’m gonna take what scares me the most / And turn it into something real,” Butch sings softly with a coat of warmth to his voice. The song tells the story of two people who have to come to terms with ghosts. In one instance the ghost is the actual person herself. It’s something Bon Jovi might have written about circa These Days when their songs had more of a storytelling element about them, before they started focusing on generic anthems.
You might think “Afraid of Ghosts” sounds like a Ryan Adams song, to which end the album was actually produced by Adams, making it the first Butch Walker record that Butch didn’t produce himself. To that end, I shrieked when I heard that Adams was producing it because Butch is one of the best producers on the planet and certainly doesn’t need outside producers. Just go to Wiki and read the long list of artists he’s collaborated with. He’s produced tracks for everyone from Weezer to The Maine to Taylor Swift to Katy Perry to Pink. And you can usually tell a Butch Walker production when you hear it. Take Fall Out Boy’s Save Rock N Roll, for example. Butch produced the whole album and it sounds a lot like Butch’s first solo album, among many of his other songs and collaborations. And that’s another thing — Butch often collaborates with artists. For example, he wrote and performed instruments on Panic! At The Disco’s last album, this in addition to producing the record. And, speaking of writing, Butch has written songs for or with most of the artists he’s produced. Suffice to say that his stamp is there on just about everything he’s done. So, I just couldn’t imagine why he’d let someone else produce his new album, even if that guy was the immensely talented Ryan Adams. That said, now that I’ve heard Afraid of Ghosts a couple dozen times and am totally in love with it, I suppose I’m glad that Adams produced it because it wouldn’t quite sound the way it does if he hadn’t. What I like best about his production here is that he’s left each of the instruments proper breathing room, allowing the listener to fully experience each of them, as opposed to cranking the levels of everything way up, making it sound too loud and difficult to tell the individual tracks from one another. Granted, Butch’s albums are all exquisitely produced and he doesn’t crank everything sky high on them either, but this record sounds just a little bit different. I guess you could say it’s the Ryan Adams’ magical touch.
“I Love You” follows “Afraid of Ghosts” and it’s a sweet and pretty little country-tinged ballad that finds Butch in a mostly upbeat mood. Sure, it’s about wanting to take things back, to do a relationship all over, craving the one that got away, but the simple chorus is lovely. “Nothing ever will be quite as true / Like the way that I love you,” he sings, stretching out the “you” for all its worth. He sounds like a young man just out of high school, free as a bird, except for a ghost that’s haunting him, his high school sweetheart, who he never did win back after they broke up junior year.
The first single released from Afraid of Ghosts is the wonderful “Chrissie Hynde,” a lovely slow-dancing sort of ballad, the sort that makes you feel like swaying back and forth, your dream girl (or fella) in your arms. There’s also a bit of a country vibe to this one. A dash of folk and Americana as well. It practically begs to be covered by Willie Nelson. “All I got right now / Is all I want / Chrissie Hynde singing through / A blown dash speaker / About Ohio / All she wants right now / Is to be the way it was / The same as when you and me were one.” If that doesn’t make you feel a little sentimental then you probably don’t have a pulse.
My favorite track on the album is “Bed On Fire,” which has a really creepy video where some people are just hanging out and having fun when they’re disrupted by a gang of bikers who look like a death metal band, make up covering their faces, upside down crosses and all. It’s rather intense. Gave me the creeps more than most black metal videos do. But the song isn’t about that. Not exactly. It’s about really, really wanting to have sex with someone. “Gonna take you down, over my knees / Make that sound, make you seize / Untie your hair, let it fall,” he sings, with an extra dose of passion in his voice. And the music is fabulous, just oozing of sex, with plucky acoustic guitars, moody orchestration, and a slow but heavy drum beat that’s guaranteed to make you want to fuck. And then there’s a scorching electric guitar solo that comes out of nowhere and dominates the last quarter of the song, all consuming, just like a fire.
“21+” also ends with a red hot guitar solo and this one is played by none other than Johnny Depp, who’s also collaborated with Ryan Adams on a few tracks of late. There’s something really bluesy about Depp’s solo and it really tears at your soul. Lyrically, this one is depressing. It’s basically about growing up too fast and how life sucks once you’re an adult, making you wish you were under 21 even though for so long that’s all you wanted to be. Or that’s my interpretation anyway.
I could go on and on, giving you a run through each track, but I almost feel like I’ve said too much already. I don’t want to spoil it for you. My intent is quite the opposite: I want to motivate you to check it out so you can experience it for yourself and draw your own conclusions about each of its ten remarkable songs. It’s a journey you just have to take for yourself. It’s like an audio equivalent to Kerouac’s On the Road. It dares to take your emotions and stir them up and make you want out of your town, to get away from the ghosts that haunt you…
Honestly, I don’t think there will be a better album released this year. And I’m pretty sure I’d be saying that even if I hadn’t already been a fan of Butch Walker.