Review Summary: Take what scares you the most and turn it into something real.Afraid of Ghosts
is a confrontational record. Not in an adversarial sense, but one that gives us time to reflect as to why we love music as a performance art. There are times where we might be curious about what a musician was feeling or experiencing in his/her life when penning a song, but there are times where artist ambiguity allows us to write our own narratives. What an album means to one listener could be radically different to another, but both are linked by the sublime feelings associated with the music. It's when we start projecting our wants and expectations onto an artist or album that things get uncomfortable.
Thus, when Butch Walker revealed that his seventh LP would be released this year, I had to rein in my egocentrism. Everyone who knows me knows I've seen the guy tons of times, that Sycamore Meadows
is a sacrosanct pop record, and his run supporting 2011's rollicking The Spade
(with power-pop quartet Locksley and Walker's backing band, The Black Widows) is my all-time favorite gig to date.
As Butch gradually released songs through his official site and shared that he enlisted the likes of touring compatriot Ryan Adams, Hüsker Dü's Bob Mould, journeyman Mike Viola, and actor Johnny Depp to assist with the record, my excitement tempered. All I kept hearing was banal Neil Young/Bob Dylan worship, with an occasional flourish of Nebraska
-era Bruce Springsteen for good measure. But before I could start running down everything I disliked about Afraid of Ghosts
, I had a tragically-too-late epiphany: "Hey, idiot. This record's not about what you want."
As voluminous as his songwriting and producing work is, Afraid of Ghosts
is therapeutic, introspective, and something Butch absolutely needed to write to facilitate the healing process. It's akin to Sycamore Meadows
in that both are a reaction to significant losses. For the latter, it was physical materials: a residence, master tapes, clothes. With Afraid of Ghosts
, Butch chronicles life after the passing of his father, affectionately known as Big Butch, and all the heartbreak and sorrow associated with losing a loved one.
For several reasons, the clear-cut highlight on the record is "Father's Day". Featuring a blistering solo from the aforementioned Mould - who similarly lost his father exactly one year before Big Butch passed away, thereby adding to the song's immediacy - everything in "Father's Day" gorgeously clicks. From the slow-burning, finger-picked verses to the brilliant piano immediately preceding the cathartic "Here I am"s in the outro chorus, few moments are as stunning across Walker's entire discography than this 90-second cross-section.
As agonizing as losing a parent is, saying goodbye forever to one's immediate partner can be equally distressing. "Autumn Leaves" is a somber exploration in doing so, even though it's buoyed by bright piano and a swifter tempo paced by mellowed snare drum taps. Butch's upper vocal register in its chorus has rarely sounded better, and the backing vocals add a resplendent layer to each rendition. Meanwhile, "Chrissie Hynde" celebrates the Pretenders vocalist ("All I got right now is all I want / Chrissie Hynde singing through a blown dash speaker about Ohio") while spinning a hopeful, coming-of-age yarn in tried-and-true Butch form: his masterful storytelling is instantly relatable and accessible to all. Similar sensitivities percolate in the dazzling "I Love You" ("I know we walked that line of when we stopped being friends and you became mine" is a personal favorite, although "'Cause if I could do it over before your time was through / I'd take back every lie I spoke and the hell I put you through / 'Cause nothing ever will be quite as true as the way that I love you" is equitably admirable), the perpetually quotable title track that effectively sets the tone for the record, and likely fan-favorite "Bed on Fire", which is the best of the aforementioned Young/Dylan/Springsteen (and also Lionel Richie!) allusions. Afraid of Ghosts
' stripped-down, straight-to-tape recording (done in just four days at Adams' studio) is a welcome breath of fresh air to the proceedings, often augmenting the melancholy and poignancy without piling on the gloom. Although the album's middle section can listlessly meander at times (with the exception of "Bed on Fire"), the album's strength is in its even-keel balance. Above all else, Afraid of Ghosts
is a record that you can connect to, regardless of life circumstance.
My apologies, then, to Butch for selfishly forgetting - even if it were for just a split-second - that music means more to me than just aesthetic judgments.
"I Love You"
"Bed on Fire"
* Stay tuned for The Autumn Leaves Project, Butch's foundation in memory of Big Butch, which will be raise awareness and funds to help research for a cure for pancreatic cancer while improving efforts in screening for and identifying the disease