Last year’s The Kids at the Club compilation of up-and-coming indie-pop, the first release from the label How Does It Feel To Be Loved?, was filled with spark and fashion: perky young things galore. But then there was Butcher Boy’s “Days Like These Will Be the Death of Me”, as dour as its title. Its final lines: “This house is like a fire when the sun sets / It knocks me to my knees / And days like these will be the death of me.” Yet it was pretty, with calming strings, and as melodic as its neighbors—in the literate pop tradition of Sarah Records and Postcard Records and other labels of yore that record collectors obsess over.
That same song is the bittersweet end to Butcher Boy’s debut album Profit in Your Poetry, the second release from that same label. Here the song comes not among dancefloor anthems but after expressions of anguish, sadness, worry over the past and the eternal, anxious present. It’s an entire album of word-precise, melodic, emotional songwriting, of the same sort as the Glasgow-based band’s introductory appearance promised. A dark mood weighs over all of the songs, though still some bounce with the energy of a solid pop hook. The songs’ protagonists wander through fogs of worry and indecision, and the songwriting makes us care.
The house on fire at the album’s end is an unsettling echo of the brief opening track’s image of our narrator in bed, wrestling with anger, confusion and sexual frustration (dirty dreams and grinding teeth). “I’m screaming in my sleep,” the song starts, ending, “I just want to find a way home.” That elusive feeling of “home”, missing even within your own bedroom, is a major theme of Profit in Your Poetry. The time-shifting lyrics to “There Is No-One Who Can Tell You Where You’ve Been” dive back and forth among memories, as if singer John Blain Hunt were singing to a photo album. The liner notes include a painting of nearly that: a man on his knees in front of photographs, laid out before him. A handwritten caption reads, “Butcher Boy is carefully arranging 500 photographs into chronological order, looking for anything in the faces that might indicate why he would do this.”
With memories come love: real, imagined or unattained. All of those types, and more, are at the heart of the album’s prettiest songs, which still cut with a sharp blade. “I Could Be in Love With Anyone” offers a sad swoon, and poetry: “Glass reflects my eyes and skin / But still my lips will crumble like ash when we kiss.” In the philandering chorus, our lovelost narrator tries to pretend that he doesn’t care, but his claim to be “breaking hearts for fun” doesn’t fit with the yearning and concern in the verses. The song “Fun” opens with the comfort of intimacy, seeming like the one moment of fulfillment on the album. But things are, of course, more complicated. “I was blinded by the times when we were fun,” the chorus goes, while the verses move from resigned, yet slightly caustic, apology for relationship failure (“Maybe I was slack or forgot to love you back”) to absolute bitterness (“If I tell the truth / I miss the autumn more than you”).
Throughout the album there’s a sense of uncertainty, of things never being as calm as they might seem, of no one ever really understanding what’s going on in their lives or why. Bodies are described and analyzed; moments from the past are longed for and despised; lives are lamented and rejected, their value lost. “I pull the stories to my chest / I let myself believe the one that I like best,” Hunt sings during the song “Girls Make Me Sick”. It’s an accurate description of the way the characters in these songs behave: creating their versions of the truth, choosing which memories to recall and what to make of them. And it presents an image of the songwriter doing the same thing: selecting photographs, looking at them under just the right light, and setting the rest on fire.