I don’t know about everybody else, but I for one couldn’t be happier about the return of the ’70s flourish. You know, the urgent strings, the unnecessary but wholly welcome background harmonies, the non-sequiturs spoken through a vocoder … by the ’90s I was afraid all this stuff was gone for good. Damn you, Nirvana!
We’ll, I’m happy to report that all of those are present on Butch Walker’s latest, I Liked it Better When You Had No Heart (One Haven Music) — on one song, the rollicking “House of Cards,” he practically morphs into ELO before our ears. The result is meticulous and exquisite; Walker has talked about how quickly the album came together, but it certainly sounds anything but dashed off — no surprise given his stints as a producer for the likes of Katy Perry, Pink and Weezer.
But as satisfying as his ’70s sampling is, Walker’s not content to stay in one decade. A Byrds-cum-Petty jangle weaves its way though its share of tracks, including “Trash Day,” the modern-living lament that opens the album, and the sardonic “She Likes Hair Bands” comes complete with Pips-worthy “Woo-woo!” Reaching back even further, “They Don’t Know What We Know” shows us where doo-wop might have gone if it hadn’t traveled down a rock ’n’ roll dead end, and “Days/Month/Years” has a touch of “Stagger Lee” filtered through Beatles fuzz guitars. Walker doesn’t wear his influences on his sleeve tattoo so much as use them as a starting point to weave something all his own.
In fact, the music is so good that the lyrics sometimes seem to be taking a back seat, at least compared to the more introspective Sycamore Meadows (2008). Some of the songs on the new disc can be fairly inscrutable — are they impenetrably deep or frustratingly shallow? — but even the lesser ones have nuggets of pure poetry, not to mention good advice. (“I told myself, don’t fall in love if you don’t know their name,” he sings on “Canadian Ten.”)
And when Walker hits his groove, even the songs that don’t seem as inspired lyrically wind up working themselves into your brain with bursts of Costello-esque wordplay and clever, over-the-top riffs. His litany of post-breakup humiliations in “Days/Months/Years” is priceless, and his take on the troubled girl of “Don’t You Think Someone Should Take You Home” — “standing there with her lips pursed, first thing in the morning, leaning up against the church like it’s [her] own” — makes you want to, well, take her home.
The 11-track collection also avoids the rare plodding digression that tended to bog down Sycamore Meadows, and Walker’s voice, while it might not always be entirely distinctive, adapts solidly to the styles he’s juggling. This includes the album-closing “Be Good Until Then,” a “Forever Young”-ish ballad of rules to live by for his baby son, and it’s worthy of the Dylan comparison.
In the end, even if I Liked it Better … isn’t the album that propels Walker into the stratosphere as a solo artist — although I hope it does — its mere existence is something to cheer about. I’ll sleep better knowing somebody’s out there making intelligent pop music for thinking people over 30. And those urgent strings don’t hurt either.
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