I remember holding my Aunt's hand as she was drifting from this world into the next. Under Hospice care, she was spending the last few weeks of her life in the home she had lived in for over thirty years. I met my cousins at her house, and we sat around her and in a flash of a moment, she was gone. You felt the life literally leave her body. Her warm hand and pulse was there one minute and gone the next. We live, we breathe and become active participants in the game of life and then in a flash, we drift away and often leave a space that is inhabitable. 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, Big Butch, 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.
Butch Walker has never shied away from sharing private and intimate details of his life in his records. In fact, this is why he has such a fervent fan following, Walker comes across as more of a drinking buddy than a rock star but on his seventh studio record Afraid of Ghosts we find Walker painting on an entirely new canvas. The landscapes are richer and more meticulous than anything he's done previously. While his songwriting has never been feeble, he has taken a gargantuan leap forward as a writer because the ten songs housed here are nothing short of a magnificent miracle. The landscapes these characters inhabit may be bleak, but their spirit is strong. It's early in 2015, but I will go on record and say that no better album will be released in 2015. The truth is, I am not even sure I can do Afraid of Ghosts justice as it encompasses everything I could ever desire from art; deep contemplation, ardent awareness and transcendent recovery.
Walker began working on a record in 2012 in between his many production jobs (including a super-secret and prodigious comeback record by Fall Out Boy, Save Rock and Roll) 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 simultaneously painful and lively. It's tragic 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 late last summer at Pax Am studios, Afraid of Ghosts came to life. Ryan Adams may come across as a peculiar choice as a producer, but hearing the record you soon realize he was the only logical choice.
The record is ambitious and bold with Walker leaving many of his greatest 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 yearn for more refined arrangements that suit their nature. 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. Afraid of Ghosts is Walker's third masterpiece, behind 2004's Letters and 2008's Sycamore Meadows. I am giving Afraid of Ghosts an extremely 5-star review. This isn't something that should matter and if you have read this far, it probably will not influence your decision in listening to the record, but I have only given two albums 5-stars in the last seven years. One was from the Mancurian band James (best known for the 90's hit "Laid" which was a concert staple for Walker for several years) for their 2008 Hey Ma album. The other was an album entitled Sycamore Meadows from the same year by, you guessed it, Butch Walker. 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, not every record was welcomed with open arms by the fan base that discovered the Marvelous 3 but each one showcased an artist exhibiting great evolution.
A lot of records I hear these days you find the artists on autopilot in a rush so they have something to sell at the merchandise stands on their summer tour but this isn't how Walker operates. He produces and writes for others so that when he releases music, it's not simply a contract filling release but a piece of himself. I will forever champion any work of art that isn't afraid to cut themselves open for the world to see. It's important to be aware of your feelings and to acknowledge them. It' as if Walker's entire career has been leading to this moment where he made a record that doesn't just bring his songwriting talents into focus, but it's a record that even the naysayers will have to sit by and silently admire.
His lyric writing has reached a higher plane with this record 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. The collaboration between Adams and Walker is fueled by more than ego or money, but by genuine respect and an admiration for each other's talents. Each song is wrapped up in the most gentle 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 an immaculate song with a minimal framework and an underlying ache. "I Love You" has a sweet melody but is laced with remorse as the narrator knows he could have been more true to their love. "How Are Things, Love?" conjures the spirit of Santo & Johnny's "Sleep Walk" with guitars that send cold chills down your spine while unrequired lust anchors "Bed of Fire" amidst a alluring string section and some guitar work by Johnny Depp. "Autumn Leaves" finds the narrator trying to make sense of a cancerous death. "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", arguably the single greatest song Walker has written to date (with a little help from Adams who receives a co-write here). Walker brings the listener into his house last June which was the first Father's Day he experienced without Big Butch. The tear-inducing picture he paints, are not for the emotionally fragile, but despite being about his father, 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 highlighted by Bob Mould's 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. Those who saw Walker open for Ryan Adams last fall caught this song for which Adams accompanied him on drums every night. The circumstances that drive the events of Afraid of Ghosts are universal. Can we find a way to love greater, 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.
I'm not sure a set of characters have been as desolate or rippled with despair since Bruce Springsteen released Nebraska in 1982, which was a 4-track home demo who recording was so haunting, they chose the demo to be the record. Something I marvel at is despite these bleak tales, none of the character bow over in indeterminable pain. Their awareness of their sins, sorrow and sadness 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 permeating throughout our life and revealing themselves to us often at unexpected moments. Walker sings about a road trip on his, 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 sad, scared and happy at the same time. To feel all if 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.
Get the album 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 - Afraid of Ghosts (Album of the Year)
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