Review Summary: Its bluesier, twangier sound makes the record difficult to get into at first, but Butch and his immensely-talented Black Widows have built a mellifluous record built on love and hope for the future.
In one of his most moving and heartbreaking passages on 2008's Sycamore Meadows
, workhorse pop icon Butch Walker laments, "This red bandanna's surely gonna fade, even though it's the only thing the fire didn't take." The fire, of course, alludes to the devastating Malibu fires, where Walker's residence - and nearly everything he created in his musical career, from master tapes to various accolades - was quickly decimated by the infernos. The photograph stills taken from the catastrophe brought to mind former CEO of Coca-Cola Brian Dyson's legendary speech about balance: "Imagine... you are juggling some five balls in the air, and you name them 'Work,' 'Family,' 'Health,' 'Friends,' and 'Spirit,' and you are keeping all of these in the air... [y]ou will soon understand that work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. But the other four balls are made of glass. If you drop one of these, it will be irrevocably scuffed, marked, nicked, damaged, or even shattered. It will never be the same." It stands to reason that Walker's spirit was crushed - any attempt at a full recovery would seem improbable, if not impossible - and yet, Walker revisited his music, worked his indescribable magic, and triumphed with Sycamore Meadows
. The record was arguably cathartic for Walker: he acknowledged the destruction and wrote extensively on loss, and it blossomed into one of the decade's best records.
Months after the Malibu calamity, Walker returns with his fifth solo outing in I Liked It Better When You Had No Heart
, and this time, he's brought along his latest reincarnation of the Let's-Go-Out-Tonites slash Merry Musical Melodymakers: the Black Widows (composed of mainstays Darren Dodd [drums] and Wesley Flowers [keys], along with Fran Capitanelli [guitars, whom I've mistakenly referred to as Fran-Office Space
Guy in the past] and Chris Unck [guitars and lap steel], who toured during the Sycamore Meadows
run, and newcomer Jake Sinclair [bass, of the very vanilla The Films], and as an extension of the Black Widows, Michael Trent [also of The Films] is acknowledged with collaborative writing credits on some of the record's cuts). As terrifying as the spiders might be, these particular Black Widows are not a portent of things to come; instead, Walker's blueprints on how to carefully and elegantly construct a terrific pop hook or beautiful melody are frequently referred to - and masterfully executed - throughout I Liked It Better When You Had No Heart
. And while there are certainly a lot of redeeming qualities to the record - devout Walker fans know what to expect, even when prompted to expect the unexpected - the album falters in a small number of legitimate and obviously unfair (i.e., it's the follow-up to Sycamore Meadows
The record's immediate impact is that it's not nearly as heavy as Walker's back catalog - tracks like the minimalist "Don't You Think Someone Should Take You Home" (where the aforementioned Trent offers a bland vocal accompaniment to match the uninteresting arrangement, which is unfortunate considering lyrical gems like "Her smile is like a jack-o'-lantern trying not to cry" and "She stole more than a little from her folks in Cartersville / With that wrong foot in that right boot left a lot of room to fill" are wasted) and the much more resplendent "They Don't Know What We Know" dabble in a bluesy, country vein, while the meandering "Canadian Ten" is saved by fascinating storytelling ("I've searched for a reason to not search for you; I feel like there's no place I haven't been through / I told myself, 'Don't fall in love if you don't know their name,' but my eyes are straight wired to my heart and bypass my brain" recall the second verse of Letters
' anthemic "Best Thing You Never Had") and Unck's screeching lap steel.
Walker's current bandmates are, as a whole, immensely talented, especially when the singer joins the popular Capitanelli and Unck with Walker's trademark acoustics. The opening 1-2 punch of the rollicking "Trash Day" and the hauntingly beautiful "Pretty Melody" showcase the trio's collective guitar prowess, from "Trash Day's" crisp opening riff and pleasant background noodling in the song's outro to "Pretty Melody's" steady crescendo builds that culminate in satisfying choruses. As mentioned previously, Flowers has been a staple in Walker's supporting cast, and his talents shine on both "Pretty Melody's" elegant progressions and his subtle support in "They Don't Know What We Know." Another superb element heard throughout I Liked It Better When You Had No Heart
is the orchestra accompaniments; without question, the arrangements heard in "Pretty Melody," the lively "Temporary Title," and playful "House of Cards" clearly bolster the aforestated cuts.
The Black Widows' presence coupled with the string accompaniments unquestionably augment I Liked It Better When You Had No Heart
, but the staying power of a Butch Walker record comes down to the maestro himself. The man has reached perfection - or at least come close to it - throughout his discography, and his archetypal songwriting traits manifest themselves in the tracks he wrote without Trent, namely "She Likes Hair Bands," "Trash Day," and "Be Good Until Then." The obvious album highlight is the rebellious "She Likes Hair Bands," which sports one of the absolute best sing-along choruses in Walker's discography ("So, baby, lay down, nobody is around watching as our bodies slowly sink into the ground / Throw away your phone and your inhibitions, too - there's a hundred dirty things that I want to do to you / . . . this is as good a night as any to say that you want me, too, woo-hoo!"), and the swift opening lick and subsequent chord progressions stay true to the record's bluesy, twangy swagger, while lines like "She's got a birthmark on the inside of her thigh / Ask me how I know [snickers] about the inside of her thigh" serve as a tongue-in-cheek, but ultimately friendly tip-o'-the-hat throwback to Walker's long-forgotten sexual adroitness.
Both "She Likes Hair Bands" and "Temporary Title" are swifter cuts found on the record, and while he's no stranger to putting himself out there to his listeners (see: "Joan," "Best Thing You Never Had," "ATL"), Walker has neither sounded more vulnerable nor human in "Be Good Until Then." The album's closer is just Butch and his guitar, providing advice and encouragement to his son in times of turmoil and distress:
Always help your mom across the street
Always wash your hands when you wanna eat
Always keep 'em dirty enough to see where you came from
. . . .
Everybody loves a hero - not so much when they fall short
So try to keep your cape on underneath
You don't have to try so hard to be the best; just know you are
And that's all that'll matter to me
And it's okay to cry if you feel it comin' on
It'll let you know you're human in the end
All these things will mean more when I'm gone
Just be good until then
The excerpted lines, as well as other sage advice sprinkled throughout the track, highlight Walker embracing his role as a prominent father figure. He never sounds preachy or on a soapbox; instead, he softly sings in an almost conversationalist manner, or as if he's crooning a lullaby as his son falls asleep. It's an incredibly gripping and engaging piece and one of Walker's finest, most compassionate songs to date.
I Liked It Better When You Had No Heart
's melodies, harmonies, and instrumentation is, as expected, stellar and characteristic Butch Walker, even with the album's more moderate overall pacing and bluesy, country-like demeanor. In contrast to Sycamore Meadows
- an album that was inspired by loss - I Liked It Better When You Had No Heart
sounds like it was built and based on love and hope for the future. The record's best songs are the faster-paced, rockier tracks ("She Likes Hair Bands," "Trash Day," "House of Cards") and/or are solely penned by Walker ("Be Good Until Then," "Canadian Ten") - he should stick to penning lyrics on his own, as Trent's contributions on record glaringly lack Walker's trademark substance and flair. While there are exceptions to this heuristic ("Pretty Melody"), the album feels stagnant and vagabond at the record's apex ("Stripped Down Version" feels like a rehashed-and-then-forgotten-again Sycamore
B-side), but the album regains steam until the insipid "Days/Months/Years" gives way to the gorgeous closer. The orchestral arrangements are extremely pretty and give the record a certain amount of majesty and personality. Despite the minor grievances and sore-thumb songs, and the fact that it's unreasonable to compare this record to its near-flawless predecessor, I Liked It Better When You Have No Heart
is a sterling addition to Butch Walker's celebrated discography.
She Likes Hair Bands
Be Good Until Then
House of Cards