Saturday, March 26, 2016
Butch Walker - Left of Self-Centered
It’s hardly surprising that Butch Walker’s debut solo album—titled Left of Self-Centered and released by Arista Records in 2002—opens with a fair dose of sarcasm, cynicism, and self-deprecation. The above line comes from “Rock Vocal Power,” the introductory spoken-word track that kicks off the album. The song is satire, playing like a mock infomercial for an instructional audio series that can turn you into a famous rock singer for just six easy installments of $69.95(!) Butch makes fun of well-known and oft-imitated rock frontmen by offering to reveal their secrets (like Eddie Vedder’s “pickle-in-mouth technique,” or Kidd Rock’s “ever-popular hey-look-at-me-I-can’t-sing-so-run-me-through-the-computer” maneuver), and a fake Scott Stapp (the Creed guy) even provides a laugh-out-loud testimonial about going from a “bar singer playing Pearl Jam covers” to the frontman of his own original music band, all thanks to the series. The line quoted above is the final part of the comedy number, acting perfectly as a fade-in to the proper album opener (an energetic, sing-along rocker called “My Way”), and even years later, the bit is still funny because its music-industry-oriented jokes have yet to go out of date. Unorthodox as it is in the opening slot, “Rock Vocal Power” is a patent Butch Walker number, a reminder of both how fickle the music industry is and of Butch’s refreshing decision as a performer to never take himself too seriously.
The rest of Left of Self-Centered more or less follows suit on the promise of the song. After watching his dreams for major label success go down in flames—not once, but twice, with previous bands Southgang and the Marvelous 3—Butch dialed it back a bit for his first solo disc. This isn’t quite a rebirth or a rise from the ashes. Rather, it’s a very solid back-to-basics rock record with bits of Butch’s beloved power pop thrown in for good measure. More than perhaps anything else, though, Self-Centered is where Walker’s prowess as a producer really came to the forefront. Using this album as a playground for learning the ropes behind the boards, Butch finally crossed the line here from amateur producer just trying to record his own band to the guy he is today, the guy who realized he could make good money as a “day job” producer and still find the time and freedom to play his own music by night. In the years following the release of Left of Self-Centered, a lot of artists would call Butch up to produce their stuff based on how great this record sounded, one of which was a little Canadian pop princess named Avril Lavigne. As they say, the rest was history.
However, while Left of Self-Centered is certainly a showcase of everything Butch could do with Pro Tools, it was also the place where he started getting comfortable as a go-it-alone solo artist. Throughout his years with the Marvelous 3, Butch had always been the primary or sole songwriter, but here, he was finally free of the expectations of bandmates or label execs who wanted him to write certain types of songs. That freedom still led to plenty of tunes that wouldn’t have been out of place on a Marvelous 3 record, especially the propulsive “My Way” (which Butch hates and will never play again), the sing-along storytelling of “Alicia Amnesia” (about a beautiful girl who can never remember his name), and the dark one-two punch of “Into the Black” and “Get Down” (both of which take a cue from the sweaty nightclub romp “I’m Losing You” from the last M3 record), but those songs were probably more about holding onto the Marvelous 3 fanbase than anything else.
In most cases, Butch took his newfound independence as an opportunity to write in a more serious and introspective vein. “Sober” is about alcoholism and the way it can destroy lives or wear away at relationships over time; “Trouble” is about a young couple who find themselves alone, afraid, and expecting a child after a one night stand; and the album’s body count escalates throughout, even on the upbeat pop gems. “Diary of a San Fernando Sexx Star” is a hook-heavy rock song, written about a girl from Butch’s high school who became a porn star before dying of a drug overdose. Meanwhile, bullets fly and rock stars die on “Suburbia,” a tongue-in-cheek anthem about all the fucked up things going on beneath a facade of normalcy in small town America. And somehow, Butch wraps it all up in melodies that you can’t help but hum along to.
The best thing about Left of Self-Centered, though, is that Butch had never been this honest and open in his songs before. He really examined his past on this record—his years spent growing up in the redneck suburbs of Cartersville and Rome, Georgia, and all of the weird, idiosyncratic people he met there—and he grew monumentally as a songwriter in the process. Nowadays, not many people consider Left of Self-Centered among Butch’s best—least of all Butch himself, who condensed his thoughts about the record into a single dismissive line (“Great title, dodgy album”) in his 2011 memoir, Drinking With Strangers—but I personally still have a strong fondness for this record, and think that, on the whole, it was the first appearance of the more grown-up Butch who has become such an interesting artist in the years since. The best songs on this record sound as good now as they did the first time I heard them, from the chiming energy of “Far Away From Close”—still one of the purest pop songs Butch ever committed to tape—to the climactic one-two punch of “If (Jeannie’s Song)” and “Take Tomorrow (One Day at a Time),” songs that somehow manage to sound both heartbreaking and hopeful at the same time. Butch wrote those last two about his girlfriend’s mom, shortly before she lost her battle with cancer, and the emotion in his voice as he sings them tears down walls and cuts right to the bone.
“If I could turn the time back just one day/It might just be enough to say all the things I never said to you,” Butch sings on “If,” first in a lower register and later in a crackling howl. This was the sound of a guy who, after spending most of the ‘80s and ‘90s as a cynical not-quite-rock-star, was repeatedly learning how to lose. At 32 years old, he’d already watched two major label bands crumble into dust; he’d been divorced and screwed up more relationships than he cared to count; and now, he was being confronted with death and loss in a whole new way. Butch would go on to convey pain and loss in more mature and interesting ways on later records, but Left of Self-Centered is still a remarkable album for the way that it allowed him to start dismantling fan expectations for what his solo career was going to be. Without this record, we would never have gotten Letters or Sycamore Meadows, which, as we’ll see in the coming days, are where the magic really started to happen. It’s worth celebrating for that reason alone, even if 70 percent of these songs will never make their way into another Butch Walker live set.