For once, it seems, Butch Walker is standing still. This, in and of itself, is a remarkable accomplishment.
Since the dissolution of his early hair-metal band SouthGang and his vastly under-appreciated pop-rock group The Marvelous 3, Butch Walker has been taking one of the most unusual approaches toward working in the music industry. When not producing hits for the likes of Avril Lavigne, Katy Perry, Weezer, or even Panic! At the Disco, Walker is releasing his own albums. While the idea of producers-turned-songwriters is really nothing new, what’s perhaps most shocking about Walker’s solo arc is just how utterly wild and divergent it is. His first post-Marvies disc, the nearly decade-old Left of Self-Centered, had some solid songs on it for sure, but it proved to be more impressive as a showcase for Walker’s funny, colorful, ear-popping production work. The album stalled, but it made its way into important circles, soon opening Walker up for one great production gig after another. Then came the emo-rock stylings of 2004’s Letters, the glam-rock explosion of 2006’s The Rise & Fall of Butch Walker & the Let’s-Go-Out-Tonites (which, for all intensive purposes, was his first true-blooded masterpiece), the hushed, minimal confessional that was 2008’s Sycamore Meadows, and, just recently, the country-rock stylings of last year’s brilliantly-titled I Liked It Better When You Had No Heart.
Yet as Walker’s cult-audience continued to grow, his songwriting gradually morphed from pop-rock grab-all to something a little more stoic, mining his past for inspirations and contorting those findings into something that was simultaneously nostalgic and modern at the same time — an intensely tricky feat to pull off. What made … Had No Heart occasionally stumble wasn’t Walker’s fierce dedication to his idols as much as it was his occasional lyrical lapses, going for overly-sentimental when straight-forward and personal had been working for him all these years prior. Now, with The Spade, Walker has pulled off one hell of a hat trick: he’s completely gutted the unessential, and provided us with one absolute gut-punch of a rock album: 10 tracks, 40 minutes, and no filler to speak of. It doesn’t just rival Rise & Fall … in terms of sheer quality; it also happens to be one of the best rock albums of the year.
Ably backed by his band of two albums now, the Black Widows prove to be a fantastic foil for Walker, still rooting his sound in a bit of Southern grit, but here, the focus is almost exclusively on the rockin’. As such, numerous Tom Petty references will undoubtedly get tossed around in reviews of this disc, but Walker doesn’t appear to mind much. Continuing his tradition of opening his albums with one of the best tracks from the set, “Bodegas and Blood” starts with a squelching stop-start guitar riff before morphing into a full-blown mid-tempo rock number, the kind that wouldn’t sound too out of place on 1970s AM rock radio. During the album’s first few songs, we get playful (and sometimes barely-audible) studio chatter in-between, as if the album was recorded on a gloriously drunken lark (although Walker recently confirmed that the raucous, free-wheeling closer “Suckerpunch” actually was). Yet even with that playful mood established, Walker’s songwriting chops never comes up short this time out. Although we’ve all heard the opening riff to “Everysinglebodyeslse” on numerous lesser alt-rock songs, it’s the piano-laced, horn-driven chorus that makes this modern-day riff get wrapped into a song that, yes, almost sounds unabashedly “classic rock” in nature (and let’s not forget Walker’s clever fake-out at the two-minute mark, only adding to the song’s charm).
While lead single “Summer of ’89” derives its wordless sing-a-long chorus from too many ’80s hair bands to mention, the lyrics, laced with nostalgia, prove alternately funny and deeply personal. In a majority of these songs, Walker revisits his youth and the “take on the world” attitude that numerous Midwestern kids felt in their early 20s, at one point asking his dad about the ways that he used to rock out back in the day (the amped-up “Bullet Belt”) before wondering if he’s living up to his European bloodline (the surprisingly wistful “Dublin Crow”). This isn’t necessarily the deepest lyric sheet that Walker has provided us (for that, see all of Letters), but it feels like the most genuine lyrical bent he’s yet adopted.
What’s even more remarkable is how even with his straightforward accompaniment, Walker can still write some of the most gloriously snotty punch lines of his career, ranging from the takedown of ’80s idols (“Smother in the cover of a ’69 Summer’ / Played through a speaker of fuzz / Nobody knew Bryan Adams wasn’t cool / The TV just told me he was”) to the dance-centric nature of modern radio (“Everybody’s writing songs with synthesizers / But I don’t have a synthesizer”). That last line is from the fantastic “Synthesizers”, which is an acidic rip of the modern music industry as a whole, arguing that while he doesn’t dressin the way a lot of these new bands do, he can stay out longer than any of these young’ns, and that at the end of the day, good music is good music no matter what. Just take a look at the song’s second verse:
I don’t have friends at Pitchfork or NME
No sexy heroin addiction plaguing me
But I can still get down like
Frank Poncherello on a motor bike
Yes, Walker just referenced CHiPS and Pitchfork Media in the same verse. It’s this fantastic sense of humor that keeps The Spade from turning into nothing more than a nostalgic getaway vehicle for Walker and his crew. Instead, by keeping his lyrics alternately funny and profoundly personal, the whole disc feels like one unified whole. When he starts comparing ATL girls to sticky Georgia pie near the end of “The Closest Thing to You I’m Gonna Find” (which, incidentally, is the closest thing to a ballad to be found on this disc), it doesn’t feel cheesy as much as it does genuinely true to Walker’s own life. As such, it doesn’t only work, but it comes off as genuinely sweet — a descriptor that isn’t usually found in in Walker’s work but feels quite at home here.
At the end of the day, when you sit down and really take apart The Spade, you realize that this album doesn’t do anything new or particularly innovative: it’s just a damn good rock album through and through. While certain bits can still be argued over (maybe “Day Drunk” could’ve been placed elsewhere in the track listing, as it tends to blur together with the preceding Stones-ish “Sweethearts” just a bit too much), The Spade feels like Butch Walker has stopped his numerous genre exercises — as entertaining as they’ve been — and finally wrote an album that is entirely in his own voice.
What’s even more amazing about it is that it completely works.