Butch Walker - Stay Gold Album of the Year
Butch Walker is standing on the tip of the stage at Chicago's House of Blues as he lays his guitar onto the hands of his faithful audience who hold it up as their arms stretch to the air. Walker then pulls out a slide and proceeds to tear through a sweltering slide guitar solo as his hands navigates the strings and frets with a metallic blues quality inducing memories of Jimmy Page and Duane Allman. The crowd basks in Walker's slide guitar mastery and the fervent grit he gives to the audience. From small bar to arena, Walker has a rare stage presence where you feel he is looking you directly in the eye sharing stories with you, contemplating life and guiding you to be the best version of yourself. Life has a way of consuming your body, your mind and your soul and if one cannot find some sort of salvation with many misplacing themselves in the rubble of their sequestered demons. At its best, rock 'n' roll has always been an art form that surrenders your worries while imparting your mind with elements of the sensual and spiritual to free not just your physique and but your cognizance as well. From dance halls in the 1950s to house music of the 1980s, thrash pits at metal shows, hypnotic thump-thump music and the beats of EDM, music is something every generation seeks out. Rock n' Roll may no longer be the most prevalent genre of music, but it still has sway to seduce with its alluring arrangements, compelling lyrics and tales that concurrently crush and console. Watching Butch Walker in concert and listening to his eighth studio album, Stay Gold makes me feel like it is alive and well. No other LP enlightened me more in 2016.
Butch Walker's Stay Gold is an entrancing journey with vigorous arrangements coloring lush and melancholy life lessons within its ten songs. Walker is a durable storyteller who weaves not just his own tales, but our own as well without us even knowing it. Over the last dozen years, no artist has captured the apparitions of my life in more surreal fashion than Walker. Music has a way of raising ghosts, good and bad, that permeate our senses in inconceivable ways. I may be driving late at night and a broken-hearted tale may seep through the speakers and out of the shadows, under a street light, a memory becomes palpable where I am taken back to a time and place where that person left an impression. Memorable glances, unforgettable conversations, tall tales, laughs that all culminate in the present. Music is naturally sentimental but Walker's career continually reconciles the past while gazing intensely towards the future. Butch Walker has emerged on the musical landscape as more than just a survivor, but a mensch navigating the treacherous ditches and gravelled roads of life while guiding his listeners with cautionary and loving tales.
Walker has made a career balancing production responsibilities (Fall Out Boy, Weezer, Brian Fallon) with a remarkable solo career. Over the last fourteen years, he has released eight albums and one EP. These are amongst the most illuminating, enlivening and human music of the millennium. He has worked diligently at his craft and developed it over the last two decades. Confidence in his craft serves him well, Stay Gold is expansive, strapping and never overstays its welcome clocking in at and a mere ten songs. He tips his hats to several influential artists from the past while picking up the baton and continuing the message and movement. A lot of reviews like pointing out the artists who sound Walker evokes, but I am less concerned with the need to redefine rock n' roll when rattling its cage is what matters. Walker's passionate delivery of his art captures authenticity in its purest form. It is not that he channels these influences, but how he is able to wield tales in the sincerest of forms.
Walker's brushstrokes are broad as he writes the hero's journey for those lost in the shuffle of life but does so with a lens of awareness. It recalls moments in our lives that were pivotal but are now faded and Walker dusts those recollections off while rippling emotions. He has continually evolved and I will match his catalog up against anyone else's from the last fifteen years. The wounded heart on Letters, the gut wrenching Sycamore Meadows, the rowdy and sentimental The Spade, the bare grief of Afraid of Ghosts and now Stay Gold all have characters searching for truth, solace, consolation and even answers to impossible prayers. These albums are widescreen works set in small towns, first class airliners, open roads and bars where characters seek the beer flows like a river. Through it all, they always prevail guided by a spiritual power and faith-restoring music. The optimism fuels the music even amidst closed record stores, stinging memories of former loves, unspeakable losses and the ashes of our past.
Stay Gold is a record where the echoes of yesterday interplay with the ringing bells of the present. Similar shades can be heard on 2011's swashbuckling The Spade but there is an underlying confidence here that differentiates it. "Stay Gold" is merely the first of ten remarkable tracks that cut to the core of being human. I am not sure I have ever felt an artist so in touch with his experiences and willing to transport them into song the way Walker does. On "Descending", Walker duets with Ashley Monroe and her harmonies send a chill down your spine of an acknowledgement of a relationship ending; an awakening that does not always occur as people continue to lead unsatisfactory lives out of fear. "East Coast Girl" eavesdrops on casual conversations trying to capture that "perfect moment" while the chorus finds Walker giving his all where you can hear a vein pop through his neck. The soulful and tender "Can We Just Not Talk About Last Night" illustrates the mess emotions play after a one-night stand. "Irish Exit" and "Mexican Coke" are rowdy barroom tales that spotlight violin player Suzanne Santo who heightens these songs with her nuanced playing and harmonies that glisten like stars in the night and serves as a counterpoint as her presence seduces us deeper into every cut where her harmonies penetrate our aural senses.
"Wilder In the Heart" has a melody that enwraps itself around you. The heartache of finding the right person at the wrong time jolts the memory banks where first loves may fade bit never dissolve. "Ludlow Expectations" takes the album into high gear with one of the fieriest manifestations of love ever paired with guitars. There is a synth buried beneath the mix but the way chiming piano chords gently compliment his guitar solo is something you should all sit back and behold. It is not that it is flashy but mines memories. The boundless band arrangement is full throttle and its enthusiasm bleeds through the speakers. Then there is lushness in the particulars of "Spark: Lost" which may be amongst the best songs he has ever committed to tape. A tale of not just a fragmented relationship but also the agony he feels from never seeing the girl's father again. He sprinkles the song with details marinated in richness and this minutia elevates and signals his vast talents highlighting his limitless creativity.
The arrangements on the album are vast and fine-tuned with nuances you will notice each listen. Walker can shred his way out of any situation with his guitar by his side and it is alive and well on Stay Gold. It helps paint pictures of characters conflicted as they wrestle with the foreboding sense that their broken dreams and shattered hearts have left them permanently incapacitated. Walker colors each character with conviction and they buzz with life. Many yearn for the ability to redo mistakes, but on Stay Gold it feels more empowering to acknowledge them as part of the journey. There is triumph in the memories, which outweigh the despondency. These characters find renewal and redemption with acceptance over the passage of time.
Stay Gold is not a great album because of whom Walker emulates but rather how he informs his audience with relevant tales. Walker is one of our greatest artists who reaffirm life not just for himself but for us as well. This is why for the second year in a row, he has made my album of the year. Stay Gold is fuelled by dreamy nostalgic euphoria and coming to terms with your past and using that knowledge so you can carry on with the present. He affords the listener with spectacles to see tomorrow which confront the ache head-on. For more than a decade, Butch Walker has proven himself a musical saviour who does not want you to wallow in yesterday's mistakes but revel in today's triumphs. Get your copy here
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMUSIC Network. His daily writings can be read at The Screen Door. He can be contacted at tonyk AT antiMUSIC DOT com and can be followed on Twitter
Butch Walker - Stay Gold Album of the Year