Rayland Baxter likes to twist his sound. His earliest work comes from a singer-songwriter tradition, with a bit of folk and Americana worked in. Each album has broadened Baxter’s style, incorporating rock and pop touches. With the new album If I Were a Butterfly, he continues that direction for his most sonically ambitious album. The expansion makes for exciting and curious listening but also leads to a record that feels scattered. Baxter seems to be looking for his new sound, and while he hasn’t sacrificed lyricism or hooks in the process, he has lost cohesion.
If I Were a Butterfly opens with the title track and a recording of his childhood self singing (young Baxter and sister Brooke appear throughout the record). It morphs into an easy funk number meditating on the brevity of life and relationships, finding a desire to be a butterfly that can simply fly away. The audio carries the weight here, with Baxter asking, “Why do we live and die? Why are we together tonight?” The questions may offer some catharsis, but Baxter never digs into them. Plenty happens in the sound of the song, but it never quite makes the kind of statement it could.
Much of If I Were a Butterfly has a similar effect. Baxter’s work in the studio has made a noticeable jump, and hearing new sides of him proves to be rewarding. The bells and whistles (sometimes literally) add all sorts of textures, but they exist solely for themselves. Baxter’s increased the limits of what he can do as a producer, but it’s left him wandering at times, as on the tedious “Buckwheat”, which doesn’t know where to go.
At its best, though, Baxter stays focused on his core strengths. With “Tadpole”, he delivers a beautiful not-so-simple piano ballad. Baxter looks back on his childhood but with a mix of nostalgia and honest concern. He’s not sure what to make of his life since then and his vocal, happily unadorned, provides vulnerability on a record that can make too much of its trappings.” My Argentina” closes If I Were a Butterfly with the same approach, hinting at his Randy Newman side, adding a touch of strings to emphasize the missed opportunity.
Baxter’s best job synthesizing his experimental ideas and pure songwriting comes in “Billy Goat”. He looks at the dissolution of a relationship with a certain bitterness, the studio effects adding to the confusion of a breakup. Simply singing “Sore throat / Billy goat” captures so much of what must have happened between the couple over the past few days. When a harmonica appears to disjoint the track, it points to the turmoil of the moment without sapping the song of its forward momentum.
Not all of If I Were a Butterfly works so well. Baxter’s pop songwriting carries most of the songs well enough that fans will likely be satisfied, and there’s always something encouraging about an artist finding new ground. These ten tracks show energetic attention to both writing and sonic detail, and if they don’t always work, they at least point to Baxter’s driven creativity. It’s impossible to know if this record is pointing toward a new work or a detour, but it likely opens a new era for the songwriter.