It's that time of year where anyone and everyone who writes puts together a year-end list reflecting their personal tastes and views. I'm forgoing the 2015 album edition because a record that I first heard in December 2014 and was eventually released in February of 2015 appears to be missing from several year-end lists. It's been overlooked and underestimated; Butch Walker's Afraid of Ghosts. The ten songs housed on his seventh record are nothing short of a magnificent miracle. The landscapes these characters inhabit may be bleak, but their spirit is strong. The characters embedded on your earphones bleed and blister like you and me. They have a palpable essence that navigates your senses like no other record released in 2015.
Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly rightfully has been chosen by virtually every esteemed magazine for album of the year. It's a piercing and abounding epic LP meant to be listened top-to-bottom encapsulating a journey. While Afraid of Ghosts appears to be on the opposite spectrum, these two albums share a widescreen concentration where the scope of their film-like albums take precedence over hit singles. Its vision is bold, especially for a man knowing to be one of the most in-demand producers today. This isn't a record any manager or label would consciously tell an artist to make. In fact, they would most likely do everything in their power to bury it.
We live, we breathe and become active participants in the game of life and then in a flash, we drift away. Death is the great equalizer, because it doesn't discriminate. When it comes to the death of a parent, I am told there is a bottomless pit that never gets filled once it becomes empty. Butch Walker recently experienced this with the death of his father in August 2013. The night the advance copy of his latest record, Afraid of Ghosts, made its way to me, I was at a wake for a dear friend's father who passed suddenly the week before. Upon hearing on my return home, I was knocked to the ground emotionally and I'm still recovering from that initial listen. A year after first hearing Afraid of Ghosts this record makes my heart pound louder than any of the other hundreds of albums I listened to in 2015. It does more than capture your imagination but fuels you with the muscle to deal with your life head-on. Some music is meant for dreaming and other times it's intended for inner consciousness. We've all been misplaced at some point, just like the individuals on Afraid of Ghosts, they've been scuffed and scarred and yet they still rise from bed everyday ready for whatever is thrown at them.
Walker began working on a record in 2012 in between his many production jobs but with his father's illness taking a turn for the worse, his album became an EP, Peachtree Battle released in late 2013. The five songs from the understated EP ripple with anticipation of his father's passing and they're concurrently painful and lively. It's heartbreaking because of the loss he was expecting yet exuberant because of the cognizance of what a gift time truly is. After his father passed in August of 2013, Walker spent a year writing Ghosts. When he finished, he had his friend Ryan Adams sit in the producer chair, a first for Walker in more than twenty years. Over the course of four days at Pax Am studios, Afraid of Ghosts came to life.
The record is aspiring with Walker leaving many of his paramount weapons not just in the holster but fully locked up here. He deafening electric guitar is mostly silenced; hooks, arm-waving choruses, hand-claps and big boisterous production are non-existent, as they should be. These songs crave for more sophisticated arrangements that suit their nature. Ryan Adams steered this ship into port and brought out the very best Walker has to offer as a sure-handed songwriter. Characters are often two-dimensional in pop music but on Ghosts, Walker doesn't just lead his narrators to the crossroads of their lives; he urges them to be participants rather than observers. Ghosts is the culmination of more than a decade of work which saw Walker continually expand his musical knowledge, test his talents and drive them into unforeseen waters. Not every record played to his core audience, nor was every one welcomed with open arms but each one showcased an artist revealing abundant evolution.
His lyric writing has reached a higher plane on Ghosts with any hint of cynicism or tongue-in-cheek teases excised. Adams finds a home for these profoundly contemplative lyrics amidst barren backdrops, dead-end towns and smoky bars where memories live in full Technicolor. Each song is wrapped up in the gentlest way imaginable as Adams' production echoes and rattles your being. Littered with regret, these characters of these songs ache for understanding and forgiveness. "Chrissie Hynde" is heart wrenching amongst with a minimal framework and an underlying ache. "I Love You" has a honeyed melody laced with remorse as the narrator knows he should have protected the gift of love he was given. "How Are Things, Love?" conjures the spirit of Santo & Johnny's "Sleep Walk" with guitars that send chills down your spine while unrequired lust anchors "Bed of Fire" amidst an alluring string section. "Autumn Leaves" finds the narrator trying to make sense of a cancerous death and "Still Drunk" captures one's liabilities with tormenting force that may suffocate some and provide salvation for others.
I am not sure if I have recuperated from "Father's Day". Walker brings the listener smack dab in the middle of his house on the first Father's Day he experienced without his father. The tear-inducing picture he paints, are not for the emotionally fragile, but despite being about death, it's bursting with life.
Sunday morning, Father's Day
The first without my dad
As I look into my little boy's eyes
It takes all I have
Not to break right down in front of him
When he smiles at me
See you don't become a man
Until you lose your dad, you see
I am not sure if any other verse has stuck with me as much as the above one, Walker lets it all go here in a slow burn underscored by Bob Mould's sobbing guitar. Mould also lost his father a few years earlier and he channels every conceivable feeling through his six-strings on "Father's Day" like a ruptured levee. The circumstances that drive the events of Afraid of Ghosts are universal. Can we find a way to force love to the forefront of our existence, acknowledge a calming storm, enjoy a summer breeze or find unassuming pleasures from merely spending time with someone we love beyond words? When faced with a life-altering event, most people surrender their lives and become permanent prisoners of their own worse nightmares. You may be lucky, you may be crafty but none of us can escape death nor can we dodge the pain associated with life. Butch Walker, time and time again, crafts records filled with life-altering significance where the characters must forge forward in order to survive.
Something I marvel at is despite these bleak tales, none of the character bow over in indeterminable pain. Their awareness of their sins, regret and grief tinge their lives with a tint of continual grey, but they're aware of the pasture of colors that exist and how they hope to see them once again. How and when they see these colors flourish doesn't matter, but it is their ability to surge forward that makes them extraordinary. Pensive albums can be overwrought with circumstances that weigh them down, but each and every person who has found a home on these ten songs are real and their circumstances and pain are vividly tangible. Afraid of Ghosts reminds us that we will never reach a place in life where everything is flawless; instead, it turns our attention towards the moments that can be pure.
The album closer "The Dark" conjures up spirits, impressions and memories that chase us, finds us and stick with us throughout our life, most often revealed at unexpected moments. Walker sings about a road trip, the lucidity that comes with it and how his father is with him on every step of this journey. His father's body may have returned to the Earth, but he lives on through Walker. Clocking in at 2-minutes and 35-seconds, it's an exquisite and emancipating send-off to the listener. Happiness can be defined as being blue, scared and blissful at the same time. To feel all of life, we have to experience these emotions, the high and low but if you are brave enough to open yourself to all of this the end result is indescribable. Each of us can hope to find something this real.
Autobiographical or not, we are absorbed as listeners by the humility in each of the ten songs. It's easy to blink and miss the wonders of life, Afraid of Ghosts urges us to clench it and try to never let it go even though it will possibly escape through our fingers. The key is to emulate the characters on Afraid of Ghosts who continually clutch life at every moment knowing one day the bell will beckon but they'll be damned if they don't try. The scenes Walker paints reflect our existence, some of which we have yet to experience. It's courageous because these are private struggles made public. Every year I'm seduced by a variety of sounds and lyrics that feel like they could have come from my soul. Afraid of Ghosts is beyond that league and elevates itself to almost sacred ground where it urges the listener to better themselves and it encompasses everything I could ever desire from art; insightful contemplation, ardent awareness and transcendent recovery.
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
Best of 2015: Butch Walker - Afraid Of Ghosts
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