There are many mysteries in this world, but one of the greatest for me is why Butch Walker is not a household name at this point in his career. From his humble beginnings with glam rock hopefuls SouthGang, to chart bothering, power pop sensations Marvelous 3, onto a burgeoning solo career that has accumulated no less than 8 solo albums over the last 20 odd years. Oh yeah, did I mention the day job? His production credits include the likes of Weezer, Panic At The Disco, Pink, Taylor Swift and most recently Green Day…need I go on?
For me, Butch Walker has a certain way with melody and wordplay that few can match. He has the ability to tell a story and tug at the heartstrings, putting the listener right in the picture. Every album has its own merits and every album is better than the last, as Butch strives to not repeat past work and continue to do something fresh.
When I first heard ‘Sycamore Meadows’, I thought he wouldn’t better it, until with his band The Black Widows, he released ‘The Spade’, and so it went on. A master of introspective and retrospective lyricism, his work culminated in 2016 with ‘Stay Gold’, a masterpiece of 80’s throwback stadium rock and lashings of Americana. The blue collar ethics of Springsteen and Bon Jovi were recreated and produced to perfection, the likes of ‘East Coast Girl’ and ‘Can We Just Not Talk About Last Night’ solidifying his reputation as one of America’s best kept secrets.
So how does Butch Walker take it up another notch in 2020? He only goes and releases a concept album, doesn’t he! ‘American Love Story’ is a full blown rock opera, a story of hate wrapped up in glorious, upbeat signature melodies to die for.
Inspired by the 2016 presidential election, Butch started writing songs about bigotry and race hate, and he then found he could write about nothing else. No love stories, no break up songs. This is a story loosely based on his upbringing in Georgia and the characters he saw around him growing up in a small town environment. These are bittersweet tales told to a soundtrack of late 70’s /early 80’s rock radio from the point of view of a cast of characters. Most songs are sung from the perspective of Bo, a white, middle-aged bigot, along with the gay classmate he bullied in school and a hippy chick named Paris that he ends up marrying.
As with every story it has a beginning and an end. The album flows as one body of work, to be experienced with the press of a button and it will have your attention until the disc stops spinning. With segues and radio interference throughout, it does feel like a journey, a movie in audio if you like.
‘The Singer’ immediately gets the brain ticking with its “are we having a conversation? “ refrain, before first track proper ‘Gridlock’ introduces our protagonist as he returns to his childhood town. Musically, it’s prime Butch Walker, harking back in feel to ‘Letters’. Lush harmonies, a cool guitar lick and though provoking lyrics draw the listener in from the off. Whiffs of 70’s power pop emanate from the speakers, and the sounds of ELO and Gerry Rafferty fill the ears.
The radio friendly ‘Flyover State’ mixes spoken word drawl with upbeat acoustic vibes. Here Butch channels Lou Reed and Tom Petty, while the genius pilfering of Tight Fit’s ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’ melody is cleverly changed to fit the theme, “freedom, dumb my way” he sings.
‘6ft Middle-Age American Man’ explores redneck stereotypes, to a happy-go –lucky, Billy Joel like piano led tune. And answers on a postcard if you can guess who the line “my Jesus wore a frown and a red ball cap” refers to.
Anti-love song ‘Fuck It (I Don’t Like Love)’ paints a stark picture of where our man comes from over a soundtrack of Kiss guitar harmonies and stadium-sized handclaps. We are then introduced to his school victim and his struggle with living the American Dream and ultimately coming out in the piano-led ‘Divided States Of America’.
We are mid-album and that leads nicely into the moment of change in the story. ‘Out In The Open’ is told from the perspective of ‘the bullied classmate’ in vivid detail. From the school days of bullying, empathising with Bo and ultimately the irony of pulling “the guy who called me ‘faggot’” from a car wreck and saving his life. Musically it’s ‘Hazard’ meets ‘Dry County’, FM territory done the Butch way, with an epic guitar solo to boot. I feel the contrast between the melody and the lyrics is what makes this song so damn immersive.
“So, are we having a conversation yet?” Announces Butch, as if needing confirmation that we are hooked. Side two sees Bo questioning his beliefs on ‘Torn in the USA’ and following pro-white radio interference, the funky ‘Everything White’ owes as much to Chic as it does to Springsteen and Gerry Rafferty.
‘Pretty Crazy’ introduces the hippy chick Paris, who comes along and changes Bo’s life for the better. Again, this is classic Butch, it could’ve easily fitted nicely on either of the Black Widows albums. A nice guitar line that follows the church choir “wooh-wooh’s” on a sweet melody. Catchy, soaked in summer vibes, with great bluesy guitar licks and handclaps, what more could you ask for in a song about a girl who claimed she did coke with Jesus in the bathroom of a train!?
‘You Gotta Be Just Who You Are’ sees our story jump a few years. Bo and Paris got married; they had a kid who turns out to be gay, oh the irony! But Bo is now a changed man, and this is a love letter to his son told over bombastic 80’s beats, swathes of electronica and choppy, guitar chords straight off a Duran Duran record.
Emotive piano-led closer ‘Forgot To Say I Love You’ is a haunting reprise. Bo, now an old man, has lived, loved and lost. He takes the ashes of his wife across the desert to see the country as he always said they would.
Apparently, Butch has been sitting on this album for 2 years waiting for the right time to release it. With racist and homophobic references that will surely offend the not so open-minded, it’s a brave and ambitious album to put out into the world and it is sure to jolt minds and fire up conversation. Many will take it out of context and not realise these are the actions of characters from observations of an artist who grew up in a redneck town in Georgia, a place that still holds a place in the writer’s heart.
Even though ‘American Love Story’ was recorded pre-quarantine, the collision of upbeat, radio friendly melodies and dark subject matter make for a thought provoking rock opera, a snapshot of American life that is needed in these troubled times.
Buy ‘American Love Story’ Here
Author: Ben Hughes