Solo projects are always a bit of a crapshoot, but the prevailing stereotype is that they tend to come out a diluted, dispirited version of the music that everyone really wants to hear the artist make, like a parenthetical, minor distraction to the main project designed to keep everyone busy while the dust settles between big releases. Naturally this isn’t always the case, but many artists feel the need to branch out at some point in their career, even if it’s in name only, and solo albums provide the refreshing illusion of distance. You can listen to Policy, for instance, the first solo record from Arcade Fire’s Will Butler, making a running comparison between the two artists’ music, but you don’t really have to—Butler seems all too eager to remind you of Funeral, Neon Bible and The Suburbs himself. Is it his fault that his first solo record so unapologetically leans into the solo project stereotype, or that it sounds decidedly how an Arcade Fire side-project is expected to sound? Frankly, yes, but in this case, that’s not really so bad.
From the very basic sonic elements to the more tangible details, Butler can’t escape the Arcade Fire influence on Policy. He utilizes the same Neil Young and Springsteen-style Americana that coursed through Arcade Fire’s early arena folk-rock albums while more directly aping his main project with songs like “Take My Side”, where he wails plenty of Funeral-derived lyrics: “I remember when we were pretty young / Well, we’d often stay together ‘til the rising of the sun / Oh, we swore we’d be together / So before you run and hide, just tell me / Are you gonna take my side?” On songs like “Finish What I Started”, “What I Want” and “Son of God”, Butler even sings in his brother Win’s characteristic inflection: whispered, a little nasal, and trailed-off in a gentle, shaky vibrato. With Policy, Butler seems determined to evoke Arcade Fire’s early successes knowing full well that he’s unable to match them alone.
So then why cop from them at all? The jittery and upbeat “Witness” suggests that poignant folk-rock is where Butler excels while stand-out track “Son of God”, more derivative of the first three Arcade Fire records than maybe any other song on the album, suggests that Butler just loves his band so much that he wants to recreate their golden early heyday. And who could blame him? Arcade Fire are one of the most acclaimed rock bands of the 21st century; any favorable comparison between them and Butler’s solo work is something of a win for him.
But then there are songs like “Anna” and “Something’s Coming” with their fuzzy synths and drum machine grooves, more deviously unique than anything else on the record. These songs are loose and chaotic in contrast to the rest of Policy’s buttoned-up Americana, more directly sourceable to the throwback post-punk of the Butlers’ good friends LCD Soundsystem than their main creative outlet. One the one hand, it shows that Butler could truly step away from the Arcade Fire sound if he wanted to, but on the other, “Anna” and “Something’s Coming” are two of the more anemic songs on the record. Perhaps what they show is that Butler really does work best in his comfort zone.
At any rate, Policy is a quaint and breezy record that just happens to sound exactly like what it is — an Arcade Fire solo effort. Should the fact that Butler doesn’t take many risks or attempt to surprise his audience at all be considered when evaluating Policy, or should it all just be taken at face value? There’s good music here regardless of who made it or where it derives from, and for an Arcade Fire fan, it’s certainly a treat. Butler shouldn’t take all that for granted, though, because it almost certainly won’t work this well next time. I’ll say it again: solo albums are a crapshoot. Policy embodies that idea more than anything else.