Review Summary: Tragic events inspire Butch Walker to make his best album to date.
Politics, politics, politics. It’s all very important and all, but is there anything more important than a breakup record?
There’s an old lie that says all great art is begotten by tragedy. Like most lies, it’s not true, but it’s in times of great personal tragedy that we most need great art; which is why albums like Blood On the Tracks
and Jagged Little Pill
will always possess an importance that goes way beyond their aesthetic value (in Jagged Little Pill
’s case- what
aesthetic value?). Add to that the fact that most musicians are basically masochists, and it’s easy to see why some would grow to be particularly good at it. One such artist is Butch Walker, who has made two, possibly three, great breakup records, the latest of which is Sycamore Meadows
, his first studio release as an independent artist.
When we last touched base with Walker, on 2006’s The Rise And Fall Of Butch Walker And The Let’s Go Out Tonites
, he was busy critiquing Hollywood from the inside, through the eyes of a country boy and rock n’ roller embroiled in the glitzy, sordid surreality of LA’s elite party scene. As you do. Late last year, however, his life in LA came to a dramatic halt when bush fires in Malibu burned his rented condo to the ground, destroying almost everything he owned and every master tape he’d ever recorded (meaning no long-lost Marvelous 3 rarities!). Amid this chaos, he appears to have suffered a relationship crisis of some sort- either he was at breaking point or very close to it- and it was this clusterfu
ck of emotions that gave birth to Sycamore Meadows
, the best single record of his opinion to date.
is heavily informed by Walker’s fire experience, but the specific themes are far more relatable: stories of heartache, loss and loneliness, along with the obligatory scene critique (for good measure.) Musically, there are no huge surprises: the general mood of despondency recalls the Marvies’ hidden masterpiece Hey! Album
; the shift towards acoustic instruments and more subtle arrangements brings to mind his 2004 album Letters
; and there are a couple of glam rock nuggets in the form of lead single ‘Weight Of Her’ and the brassy ‘Ponce De Leon Ave.’ He experiments with new instruments and styles just enough to make the familiar sounds fresh. ‘Ponce De Leon’ is primed to explode with funky latin horns, while ‘Summer Scarves’ rests upon a sweet, melancholic oboe melody that could have been plucked straight out of a classic film score. His debut solo record Left Of Self-Centered
experimented with hip hop and electronic styles, but often came across as awkward as it was well-intentioned; Sycamore Meadows
is a far more accomplished effort- an extremely well-polished and well-drilled pop-rock record.
Walker’s songwriting trademarks are all present and correct, from fast-moving character-driven narratives like ‘Weight Of Her’ and ‘Going Back/Going Home’ to more direct and physically moving numbers like ‘Passed Your Place, Saw Your Car, Thought Of You’ and ‘Here Comes The...’ ‘Weight Of Her’ recalls ‘Bethamphetamine (Pretty, Pretty)’ from the last album, driven by a strong acoustic guitar motif and a verse melody that calls to mind Elvis Costello at his explosive best. ‘Going Back/Going Home’ also has a cousin from the previous record in bluegrass ditty ‘Rich People Die Unhappy’; this time he weaves his own experience of losing his home with a compassionate account of a woman caught between an abusive husband and a son that needs a father. He even manages to rap- fairly well! Closer ‘ATL’ is a semi-autobiographical account of a man’s struggle to find his place in a world of limited options: ”Atlanta please need me, like I needed you / ‘Cause I’m suffocating, like some people do, and I need your air to survive.”
For the second album in succession, Sycamore Meadows
features guest vocals by pop singer P!nk, who appears on album highlight (and potentially Butch’s best ever creation) ‘Here Comes The...’ She doesn’t add an awful lot to the track- she’s only there to provide colour- but what she does she does well. Sitting on top of a funky acoustic guitar groove, the lyrics perfectly capture the fear and helplessness that is felt when a relationship seems to be on the road to collapse: “Here comes the heartache, the move out day, excuses for my friends / here comes the reasons I have to justify, ‘it was better in the end’ / here comes the last time I’m gonna kiss you and the first night sleeping alone / here comes the hardest thing we’ve ever known.”
Walker muddies the waters a little bit by working in a fire metaphor (”you can’t lose a fire when there’s nothing left to burn”
), but whatever its inspiration, the dread and latent despair that it invokes is unmistakeable. Similarly, ‘Passed Your Place, Saw Your Car, Thought Of You’ could easily be Hey! Album
’s ‘Let Me Go’ revisited ten years on, tracking the singer’s descent from moderate self-pity to eternal, irreparable heartache.
A couple of lighter, more breezy numbers help break up the album’s emotional heaviness towards the end: ‘3 Kids In Brooklyn’ is Walker’s tirade against New York City and its indier-than-thou scene kids, with lines like ”[she’s] working at American Apparel, selling women’s clothes to guys”
, while little explanation is needed for the inspiration behind ‘A Song For The Metalheads’: ”[they] throw rocks but [they’re] not rocking, and stand there just mocking / with hands in their armpits but they'll later smell / when you live in the past, there’s one thing that will last: resentment that time won't sit still”
. But Sycamore Meadows
is an album that was born from heartache, and it’s on its saddest and most visceral numbers that its creator truly shines, and perhaps gives some validity to that old lie about art.