Saturday, March 26, 2016
Butch Walker - Peachtree Battle
-Butch Walker, dedicating a song to his father at a recent concert
Over the past week, I’ve written ten reviews spanning ten different records from Butch Walker, my favorite living songwriter—or at very least, a guy I consider tied with Bruce Springsteen for that title. I’ve covered solo albums, full-band records, and side projects, and I’ve written about nearly every song that Walker has written in the past 15 years. I did it in some 16,000 words, in a feature I called “Butch Walker Week,” and for those who have made the journey with me—and survived that hefty word count to get to here, no less—I thank you for your attention. It’s been an adventure, to say the least, a walk through some of my favorite songs of all time and through records that have shaped my life since I first stumbled upon Letters eight and a half years ago. And today I reach the end—or hopefully, the middle—of Walker’s catalog with a new EP called Peachtree Battle, which releases to digital outlets today. Suffice to say, it feels like a good place to pause the music, lay down my pencil—er...laptop keyboard—and reflect. This album, I think, is a culmination.
For whatever unfair reason, great art—music especially—is often birthed from heartbreak and great personal suffering. Bob Dylan once wrote that “behind every beautiful thing, there’s been some kind of pain,” and while that statement is a bit reductive so as to fit the poetry of a folk song, it rings particularly true when it comes to music. When artists air their grievances through song and let us see them bleed, the result is transcendently powerful. It takes their suffering and makes it ours, reflects our own broken hearts back at us through the songs, and in the process, renders the music timeless. So many artists over the course of music history have proven this to be true, and Butch Walker is one of the most brilliant examples. As I’m sure I’ve made abundantly clear to anyone who has followed this long, meandering journey through his work with me over the past week, there are things I love about every Butch Walker record. I love the sweaty, carefree rock ‘n’ roll of The Spade, the folk-meets-Beatles-pop experimentation of I Liked You Better When You Had No Heart, and the glammed-up time machine of The Rise and Fall of Butch Walker and the Let’s-Go-Out-Tonites! They’re all great works.
But the albums that have stuck with me the longest are the introspective ones. 2004’s Letters was a break-up album for the ages, full of yearning verses and viscerally emotional choruses about love gone wrong, while 2008’s Sycamore Meadows caught Walker at another reflective moment after he lost his house and every material possession he’d ever owned in a California wildfire. Sure, both albums found me at important times in my life—Letters as I was first falling in love with music and Sycamore Meadows as endings and goodbyes started to rain down on me during my senior year of high school—but it was the emotion in the songs, put there by Walker and derived from his own loss and hurt, that has allowed them to resonate in my heart for so long.
I bring this all up here because Peachtree Battle is absolutely cut from the same cloth as those two masterful discs. Written and recorded in the months and weeks leading up to the death of Butch’s father—“Big Butch” passed away on August 21, a week before Peachtree Battle’s first single went out to the press—Peachtree Battle is reflective, heartbreaking, and celebratory in all the right ways. Following his father’s passing, Butch tweeted “You never become a man until you lose your dad. Rest In Peace “Big” Butch Walker I love you so much.” In 140 characters, Butch’s grief poured forth, and it does the same thing throughout these five songs and these 18 and a half minutes. It’s all too brief, of course, just like the lives of the people we love always seem to be, but while I so wanted this to be a full-length, it’s impossible to argue with Butch’s reasoning for keeping it an EP: he wanted his father to hear these songs in their finalized versions before he said goodbye, and we can’t blame him for that because they constitute one of the most beautiful farewells ever expressed through music.
Peachtree Battle also accomplishes in five tracks what really no other Butch Walker record has been able to do in 10 or 12, and that is to offer a retrospective look back at all of the sonic territory that Butch has traveled since he commenced his solo career in 2002. The blissful power pop of Letters is back on “Coming Home,” the set’s bittersweet first single. With its beat-heavy production and triumphant chorus, “Coming Home” sounds like it could be an absolute smash in the post-fun. version of mainstream pop music. It won’t get to radio, just because Dangerbird—Walker’s label—doesn’t have the resources to get it there, but its appeal is far-reaching nonetheless. “Favorite Son” is another earworm, with a glammy falsetto groove that wouldn’t have been out of place on The Rise and Fall and the same easygoing summertime flare that so defined The Spade, while the rousing lead-off track, the menacing classic rock rave-up of “I’ve Been Waiting For This,” has the same crowd sing-along potential that songs like “When the Canyons Ruled the City” and “3 Kids in Brooklyn” have always carried with ease.
But while Peachtree Battle feels like a “greatest hits, new songs” package on a sonic level, it is ultimately defined by its lyrical content. The wistful title track—which Butch premiered for the first time at the live show I saw in August—burns with a steel guitar ache and a chorus that describes, in perfect fashion, the pain of moving on when someone important has departed from our lives. “It gets hard to share the same streets I shared with you, hard to wipe the places from my mind,” Walker sings, an intimate and minimalistic layer of folk production bringing out every weather-worn pang in his voice. “Maybe I’ll discard it when I finish what I started, then I’ll know: wherever you are, that’s my home.” It’s a tearful ballad, and Butch’s decision to dial back the production makes all the difference in just how hard it hits.
“Let It Go Where’s It’s Supposed To,” the set’s grand finale, hits every bit as hard, building through a backwoods country-folk arrangement to a bridge that boasts the record’s most revealing lines. “Now that I’m a man myself and my father’s bones are turning into dust/I got a boy to raise through hell and just pray he turns out half the man he was,” Butch sings during the momentary break, the song’s Allman Brothers guitar scratch chugging away beneath him. “When you grow and think you’ve seen it all, nothing will prepare the fall/Please just take these words before I’m gone.” Moments later, the song explodes into its final chorus, a celebratory reverie loaded with handclaps and classic rock guitar sounds, and it takes me back to the first time I heard the song, at Chicago’s Bottom Lounge this past New Years Eve.
That night, early on in the show and vamping on a simple guitar riff, Butch borrowed a band member’s phone to call his parents. When his dad answered on speakerphone—with a simple, “hey buddy”—the crowd erupted in cheers of approval, and after Butch Sr. had wished the entire crowd a Happy New Year, Butch Jr. launched into a rousing take on “Let It Go Where It’s Supposed To.” It was a moment of laughter and connection for a father and son that, for many years, didn’t see eye to eye, and it was such a pleasure to see the happiness in Butch’s eyes as he made that call and played that song. Now that Butch Sr. has passed, it would be easy to see “Let It Go” and the rest of Peachtree Battle as sad songs, but I don’t think that description does this record justice. These songs are about love, resilience, catharsis, and celebration, and even though it’s hard not to wish there were about five more of them—if the strength of this material is any indication, a full-length Peachtree Battle would have easily stood alongside Letters and Sycamore Meadows as Butch’s best work—it’s equally hard to find fault with them.