Butch Walker & the Black Widows: I Liked It Better When You Had No Heart
One of the biggest cult artists working today retains his title by simply doing what he does best: whatever the hell he wants.
Let's face it: most musicians would have a hard time making an easy transition from hair metal to country, but, then again, most musicians aren't Butch Walker.
If you were to listen to the song "Tainted Angel" by his first band -- the short-lived hair-metal outfit SouthGang (and yes, that's him in the dark hair) -- greatness was not immediately apparent. Yet following a few solid albums as part of his upbeat alt-rock trio the Marvelous 3, you could see Walker start to come to terms with his way for crafting brilliant pop hooks (and around this time, he also began manning the producer's chair all by himself). His 2002 solo album Left of Self-Centered was a slice of snarky, immaculately-produced fun, and even when the album sold poorly, key figures in the music industry managed to hear it, and it wasn't long before Butch Walker became an in-demand producer, initially working with rock artists like Sevendust and SR-71 (whose "Right Now" had Walker's fingerprints all over it), before moving on to tackle more mainstream affairs like Avril Lavigne, P!nk, and Katy Perry.
All of this notoriety soon allowed Walker to become one of the rarest kinds of people working in the industry: a powerful producer and songwriter who also was able to release his own albums to an ever-increasing fanbase without having to compromise a thing. As such, by having no commercial expectations to meet, Walker has been able to follow his muse wherever it leads, meaning that no two Butch Walker solo albums sound even remotely the same. His 2004 offering Letters took on a bit of an emo-rock vibe, while his 2006 disc Butch Walker & the Let's-Go-Out-Tonites (his best) showed Walker crafting a glam-rock album at a time when no one was even touching the genre, his remarkably focused songwriting elevating it above a simple genre exercise.
Yet things took a turn for the worse in late 2007 when a wildfire destroyed his home and every single master recording he owned, completely devastating him, and causing Walker to look at life anew, resulting in 2008's Sycamore Meadows, which -- even with some Tom Petty homages and P!nk cameos -- was as stripped-down and personal a record as he had ever made, with most of the songs featuring nothing more than Walker's guitar and voice, giving it a folksy, backwoods vibe that Walker had only hinted at before.
So although I Liked It Better When You Had No Heart is still Walker's "country" album, it's not going to find shared shelf space with the likes of Alan Jackson or Toby Keith. Although its sound is very indebted to the sound of late-70s/early-80s country pop (meaning certain David Allen Coe comparisons are welcome, but saying "Mel McDaniel" is starting to push it), the attitude is still all Walker. Certain tropes from previous albums make reappearances here, like using song descriptions as metaphors for describing girls ("Stripped Down Version", "Pretty Melody", "Temporary Title"), utilizing that reverb-heavy "classic" drum sound to make the album sound about two decades older than it actually is (used to great effect on ... And the Let's-Go-Out-Tonites), and -- of course -- opening the album with his out-and-out catchiest tune (one of his finest traditions).
"Trash Day" kicks things off with a Petty-ish kind of vibe that proves just as welcome here as it did on Sycamore Meadows, as Walker uses trash pickup days from around the country as a way to do sprawling character portraits, which -- as evidenced by his undisputed fan favorite track "Suburbia" -- is what he does best:
"Trash day in Nashville, Tennessee
No one can smell this religion but me
I see it in the hair styles of young Christian men
Who drink, smoke, and fuck like the world's gonna end
Then Sunday will come and they'll all just pretend
That it never ever happened that way"
Conversely, Walker isn't afraid to get autobiographical on the brilliant wah-guitar pop workout "She Likes Hair Bands", noting that "She likes hair bands / On Satellite Radio / But I was in one / So it's a little too close to home". Later, Walker cracks jokes about his intimacy with said lady by noting "She's got a birthmark / On the inside of her thigh / Ask me how I know / About the inside of her thigh", the whole thing then launching into a big group singalong with choo-choo sounds and one of the chewiest choruses Walker has penned in some time. Moments like these retain the goofy-fun charms of his earlier work, but never once do these one-liners come off as sophomoric or pandering: Walker has a way of selling each line like it's something pulled directly from his life.
Speaking of "choo-choo sounds" and the like, it should be noted that Walker really began experimenting with group vocal harmonies to great effect on ... And the Let's-Go-Out-Tonites, and now that he's aided by a sturdy backing band in the form of the Black Widows, he's able to pull out even more tricks, like how the layered "ooh" sounds in the chorus of "Stripped Down Version" elevate what could've been a by-the-numbers mid-tempo number into something much more soulful without having to add a single word. Faint echo choirs give some backbone to the glorious string-heavy Phil Spector pop experiment "Pretty Melody", some very ELO-styled voices make "House of Cards" stand out, and -- just to prove that he's not all bells and whistles -- the beautiful, remarkably sweet "Don't You Think Someone Should Take You Home" features some of the most restrained vocal performances he's ever laid to tape.
Yet even with all the high praise he's accustomed to, Walker still isn't immune to the occasional lyrical misstep. Throughout Had No Heart, some odd lines mar what is otherwise some really fantastic songs, like Walker says of the girl at the center of "Don't You Think ..." that "Her smile looks like a jack-o-lantern / Trying not to cry" (yikes). Although tracks like the otherwise-pleasant "House of Cards" run on clichéd sentiments (the protagonist's house of cards is falling down, you see), no misstep is greater than Walker's closing ballad, "Be Good Until Then", which is not as much filled with a lifetime's worth of advice as it is a laundry list Hallmark card platitudes, some of them saccharine to the point of overkill (Worst offender: "Always wash your hands when you wanna eat / But always keep them dirty enough to see where you came from", although "Never judge a color of a skin / Never judge a person by their kin" comes in a close second). Walker's moodier side was on full display on Sycamore Meadows, and after losing all his material possessions, there was something of a point to his introversion; on this album, it simply comes off as preachy, despite his good intentions.
When all is said and done, it's doubtful that I Liked You Better When You Had No Heart will go down as Walker's definitive statement as an artist, nor will it significantly expand his loyal following. What it will do, however, is simply reaffirm to everyone that Butch Walker is still one of the most creative, consistent, and flat-out exciting artists working in the industry today, commercial prospects be damned. Even with a couple of missteps, there's a very strong chance that many of Had No Heart's songs may outlast some of the very tunes that Walker actually pens for those major-label chart-topping pop starlets that employ him. Now how many other super-producers can you say that about?