Review Summary: This is America
On February 23rd, 2020
, Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed black man, was out jogging in Glynn County, Georgia, when he was shot and killed in broad daylight by two armed white men—father and son duo, Gregory and Travis McMichael. The encounter was filmed on the cellphone of the McMichaels’ neighbour and alleged accomplice, William Bryan. Gregory and Travis McMichael were neither arrested nor charged with a crime by the District Attorney, and were only arrested and charged by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation on May 7th, 2020
, following a public outcry after the cellphone footage had been leaked earlier in the week.
“Why is any of this relevant”, you ask? Because this is the America that Butch Walker is singing about on American Love Story
American Love Story
is a rootsy “rock opera” where the protagonist, Bo, is a small town man raised to love “football, god, p***y and pizza” and to hate “f*****s and
immigrants” because he’s “an American!” Then one day his life is saved by a gay man that he used to bully which leads him to question his hatred and re-evaluate his identity. He falls in love, gets married, and has a son who turns out to be gay too, but Bo realises that he loves and accepts his son completely. His wife dies, but he raises his son to be an artist and musician, and tours America with him. He finally sees the diverse places and meets the diverse people that he never did living in his tiny bubble of a small town, while becoming the kind of person who “believes in equality and helping out others to make this a stronger and less divided nation.”
Oh...er...belated spoiler alert!...but not really, because it’s all very on-the-nose. The major failing of this album is that there’s little nuance in the lyrics. For much of the album Butch tells you exactly what he’s thinking and who he’s building his protagonist up to be and rarely even seems to try to couch it in poetry. He even throws in “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” (yes, from The Lion King
...and I guess F.R.I.E.N.D.S
) as the chorus of “Flyover State”. It’s a very Butch joke to make, and there are plenty of others across the album, but it’s also kind of cringeworthy, even by rock opera standards. Thankfully, the songwriting eventually catches up to Butch’s earnestness. The clear inflection point occurs at the midpoint of the story, on “Out in the Open”, where Bo’s life is saved from a car wreck by the gay kid he used to bully:
“When he focused on my likeness / I could see it in his eyes / Everything he’d been taught to hate / Would finally save his life / And the irony about this / I told him with a smile / Your god must work in stranger ways / Than your heart will allow
From there on out, Butch sounds like he remembered to write actual songs instead of focusing so much on the story, and the second half of the album turns out all the better for it. The closing triptych of “Pretty Crazy”, “You Gotta Be Just Who You Are”, and “Forgot to Say I Love You”, are genuinely good songs with “Pretty Crazy” potentially being one of the best songs Butch has ever written. These songs, and the opener, “Gridlock”, are rife with giant hooks and, even at their most earnest, the kind of self-aware snark that his fans love and detractors don’t.
Musically, Butch doesn’t veer far from the well-worn bluesy roots rock pastiche he’s been trading in since the late 2000’s, but his encyclopaedic pop knowledge finds him spicing that template up with new wave synthesizers, gospel choirs, and funky horn sections without ever overdoing any of it. He is also a massively underrated guitarist and pulls off several stunning
guitar solos like on the outro of “Out in the Open” and during the breaks of “Torn in the USA”, and “Gridlock”, showing that, even when he can’t quite tap into a lyrical vein of gold, he rarely struggles behind his guitar or mixing console.
You might be tempted to dismiss American Love Story
as just another screed by a wannabe woke white dude “virtue signalling to the neighbourhood social justice warriors” to make a quick buck—if you ignore the demographics of his fanbase, that is—and the first half of the album does tend to come off as preachy. Maybe it’s the caricatured stereotype of the evil cis white male that rubs you the wrong way.
But keep in mind that ALS
was released the day after Ahmaud Arbery’s killers were finally arrested and charged in the same state of Georgia that Butch was born, grew up, and still spends much of his time in. When he sings about childhood friends who refer to Drake as "one of the good ones
" on "Torn in the USA", you just know that conversation really happened. He has firsthand knowledge of the privilege he sings about. The sentiments, as mawkish as they can be, sound genuine and lived-in, especially when relating to father-son relationships and the lessons passed down through the generations. And while it’s true that Butch’s articulation of those sentiments on American Love Story
is pretty uneven and often ham-handed, just the fact that he’s trying to start a conversation about a world where a man like Ahmaud Arbery can go for a jog in suburban Georgia without having to worry about getting murdered makes it worthwhile. The presence of some good music on American Love Story
is a bonus.
"Pretty Crazy": https://youtu.be/gp9zI8AY648
 American Love Story
was released with an accompanying film that can be watched here: https://youtu.be/Y-Kch2Rh9_Y
 Don’t shoot the messenger. They’re direct quotes.
 I’m not attacking you JWT. I’m quoting you because of how succinctly you phrased that idea.
 See also: 2016’s Afraid of Ghosts
, Butch’s tribute to his own recently-deceased father.