Butch Walker and the Black Widows – I Liked It Better When You Had No Heart Release Date: February 23, 2010
Record Label: One Haven Music
Butch Walker is not a man who likes to settle for routine. Judging from his artistic merits, one could imagine he doesn’t pick the same meals each day or ultimately settle on the same girl to divulge poetic tragedies about on nearly every record. Big shiny arena rock, grownup pop rock, glam-infused indie rock, blue-collar Americana… it’s obvious there isn’t much of a “rinse later repeat” mantra hanging above Butch’s bathroom mirror. Certainly Mr. Walker is a well-known man-about-town who works with big-name acts and writes big-hit songs — he just isn’t as household as some of his pop tunes are. ‘Tis a shame, too, considering after decorating the first ten years of this millennium with several solo efforts that pass through every rock sub-genre out there, he has yet to gain recognition in the mainstream community (minus his accomplishments with Avril Lavigne, Weezer or Secondhand Serenade).
I Liked You Better When You Had No Heart pretty much sums it all up in its title. Familiar with Butch Walker’s material? You know what’s coming, at least in terms of lyrical wisdom. However, when it comes to his style and approach, even longtime Butch aficionados can’t guarantee the odds are close enough to bet on. In case you were unable to pinpoint it… no, the title is not an emo-type phrase you should have tattooed across your forearm; it’s actually country-inspired wisdom. The self-indulgent confessionals about loving damaged goods due to your own insecurities, patching up wounded souls (including your own), chicks who basically got dealt a bad hand (that will be my only & final vague reference to Kenny Rogers’ The Gambler) — it’s all a part of Walker’s world that he has conjured up for his fifth solo outing. Still harping on the softer delicacies of his intimate, more somber record, Sycamore Meadows, Walker has truly outdone himself with an album that captures all the nuances that made Letters and Meadows shine, and extracts them bit by bit to give every individual track its own breath. The record slowly builds a sense of rhythm as it trounces along, yet it’s still just as heart-shatteringly poignant (”Canadian Ten”) and pockets that trademark wink-and-a-smile charm (”She Likes Hair Bands”) with a good sensibility that doesn’t appear cheesy.
Letters was a monumental growth spurt for Walker’s solo career, and after everything he went through to release Meadows, it’s even more amazing to see him come through stronger with the follow-up to such a deeply personal record. While tracks like “Stripped Down Version” do hint at a life of remorse and promiscuity, drenched in heavy indie rock inspiration, all-together it is a far less constrained piece of work. Pulling influence from Jeff Lynn to John Lennon to Ryan Adams, Walker and his band are obviously having a fantastic time together, and it all flows loosely and breezy like a pleasant rock record should. Country, folk, pop — it’s all thrown into an infectious creation that slaps eleven tracks down without much hesitation of ever looking back.
“Pretty Melody” is laced with strings like Spector-produced Beatles with a harmony that doesn’t sound too far off from something ELO would have penned. “Temporary Title” again uses a big ELO/Beatles influence to weave its manic string melodies through your ear canals, and if “House of Cards” doesn’t make a splash with the McCartney fan in you… there’s no hope for classic pop music enthusiasts. Take note the influence is no mistake — the strings were recorded at none other than the Abbey Roads Studios in London. A flurry of small details like that add up to show just how diverse Walker is (and has been), and that his idea of what goes into his solo records is far separated from what he produces with other more mainstream-oriented bands.
“She Likes Hair Bands” is good old-fashioned rock n’ roll with a Steve Miller sing-along chorus — not the first time Butch has “borrowed” from the Joker himself (Marvelous 3 fans, what up!). “Don’t You Think Someone Should Take You Home” is a faux-country ballad that gains influence from a more mature source Walker hasn’t truly tackled since “Promise,” off of Letters. From the get-go, even upbeat tracks that are written about Beverly Hills residents who gorge on medication (”Trash Day”) are big country-influenced numbers (with perhaps a hint of Tom Petty’s songwriting style), and when paired next to songs that divulge the inner weaknesses of a man who has seen the light, so to speak, this might be Walker’s most volatile, creative and memorable album to date. Trying out new lyrical tactics, a various combination of style and having free-range to essentially do whatever the hell he wants, it’s truly glorious to see a man who can write sugar-soaked melodies for pop-rock bands be so grounded & adventurous all at once.
Consider it Butch’s ode to Nashville, because as much as this is a classically themed rock album, it’s also a tip of the hat to Nashville — a city that started it all — and to the musicians who embraced the melodies of a good pop song within while exposing themselves through the words & the music they created along the way. If Elvis Presley was able to lift Nashville off the ground, Butch Walker certainly has the means and the ways to spin it on his fingertips.
On the final track, another nominee for Best Overall Song at the semi-annual Butch Walker Awards (hyperbole, yes, but honestly, there is always new material vying for this award), Mr. Walker offers up a slice of life and plenty of nuggets to make your days on this earth far less cynical. It’s a healthy piece of pop genius that not only serves a positive dose of reaffirmation, but proves how sincere music can be, and just how powerful the words & melodies are to the right people (in this case, his son). For a guy who lost it all a couple years back, to come roaring back with such fervor and remain as pivotal as ever, it really showcases the strength art has — even when you find it in a pop song. And hey, when was the last time you could honestly say that?