Butch Walker recalls heartland rock’s glory days with Stay Gold, a record that continues the new winning streak he started with 2015’s excellent Afraid of Ghosts. The rough, ready rocking evident on the opening title track summons the spirit of ’86 when bands such as the Del Fuegos, the Del-Lords, BoDeans and the almighty Rainmakers spoke truth to power with simple chords and a belief that, despite mounting evidence to the contrary, life could be worth living. Heartland rock didn’t earn its name because it came from the middle of the country (though some of it did) but because it came from that most storied organ, the very thing that got splayed out on masterfully-constructed A and B sides all the way up until about 1989.
“East Coast Girl” is the portrait of a life in crisis but a reminder that crisis just means on the precipice of change. And, change, it turns out, can mean finding love or finding some way of stabbing your way out of the darkness. Whatever it means, though, it sounds best when Walker’s detailing it via his barbaric yawp chiming, Springsteen-style guitar lines. The Boss’s spirit looms large in this collection, though Walker takes us to darker, more realistic places amid the soaring courses and tales of three time losers who haven’t given up and who maybe aren’t smart enough to imagine it. You can hear that via “Wilder in the Heart” and the aching throb evident in the pedal-to-the-metal desperation of “Ludlow Expectations”.
If there’s ever been a doubt about Walker’s ability to create fully-realized characters, the type that live, breathe and runaway on streets of fire, let those be put to rest on this record. There’s nothing more vivid or terrifying than the truths revealed in the Stones-y “Can We Just Not Talk About Last Night”, a portrait of a man fumbling with intimacy and struggling with the realities of his own desires. It’s smart, beautiful, and a textbook example of fine songwriting.
But then the whole record is. “Spark Lost” (the title explains it all) aches and hurts the way that songs do when familiarity gives way to revelation; “Mexican Coke” is loud, raunchy and gets all the details of forbidden love/lust right; “Record Store” closes the record on the perfect note, sounding like a last-minute revelation, the song that was just barely finished but is still perfect.
There are who are hailing Stay Gold as a sign of Walker getting in touch with his country roots but there’s not much country here. It’s rock ‘n’ roll, even in its quietest moments, that prevails and casts the longest shadow over these expertly-rendered songs. Sincerity and wisdom permeate each chord change and hard-won line. If there’s ever been any question about Walker’s place in the pantheon of his generation’s greatest writers let that question be answered with a resounding yes and let this album stand as the main source of evidence.
As Walker enters this new phase of his career, one marked perhaps more by an appreciation of his own work rather than the work he does with others, Stay Gold, with its many brilliant moments, lights the way.