May 5, 2020 Butch Walker – American Love Story (Album Review)
Grammy-nominated musician and superstar producer Butch Walker is back with his conceptual Rock Opera, American Love Story, which arrives on Friday, May 8th, 2020, via Walker’s own Ruby Red Recordings. That’s right, it’s time to Make Rock Operas Great Again (MROGA)!
What is there that Butch Walker cannot do? A phenomenal producer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, vocalist, author, and more, Walker has been making music his professional game for over three decades. Beginning his career out of Georgia, with a series of Rock bands, Walker officially began doing things his way with 2002’s Left of Self-Centered, and would go on to issue seven more albums over the next 14 years—including 2008’s Sycamore Meadows, 2011’s The Spade, and 2016’s Stay Gold. Of course, there is also his gig as an in-demand producer, which has seen him working with the likes of Taylor Swift, Frank Turner, Green Day, Weezer, Fall Out Boy, Pink, and many, many more. In fact, he is currently in the studio with The Wallflowers, Billy Idol, and Jewel.
Nevertheless, this is a conversation about Walker’s own music. For his ninth full-length, the artist has opted to follow in the footsteps of The Who’s Tommy, Green Day’s American Idiot, and Randy Newman’s Good Old Boys. Inspired by the 2016 election, he began drafting a conceptual Rock Opera that delved into the social and racial divide in our polarized modern times; a love story about hate. Centered around three main characters—a racist bigot, a liberal, and a young gay man—the 13-song American Love Story has a spirit of activism as it meanders through the hot button issues of racism, homophobia, and the desperate need for change—in ourselves and our society.
American Love Story opens to “The Singer,” a hodge-podge of sonic minimalism amid a sea of voices contemplating conversation. At just under two minutes, it’s a cinematic introduction, one that literally places the spotlight onto the radiating sonic warmth of “Gridlock.” A delicate but oxymoronic bop with a dewy nostalgia to its guitars, this is the perfect gentle rocker for driving around with the top down—hopefully minus any sighting of the particular bumper stickers mentioned herein.
“1, 2, fake news!” begins “Flyover State.” Combining a beachy feel with a catchy play on The Tokens’ remake of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” (actually written by Solomon Linda and originally titled “Mbube”), this is certainly an odd pairing but it somehow works. This paves the way for the arrival of a very different kind of beast, a “6-ft Middle Age American Man.” Prancing into your ears with more retro feels, the track introduces the titular divorcee who lacks in the empathy department. In turn, this serves as the perfect set-up for “Fuck It (I Don’t Like Love),” celebrating and scoffing at the complexities of human relationships.
Piano opens the gray skies of “Divided States of America,” the death of the American dream amid a country full of racism, homophobia, and indifference. Next, undulating percussion sets the scene for “Out In The Open,” with an almost Richard Marx-esque feel. Here, the story connects two of our characters, who are brought together through one’s bigotry and a strange act of God, and their chance encounter is punctuated by a truly emotional guitar solo that closes the track with a slow fade.
“I want to know who to hate,” Walker croons as he starts a clap-along for the joyous cynicism, infectious indifference, and requisite loathe of “Torn In the USA.” A slice of sarcasm at its finest, perhaps at this point in the conversation you’re able to see that much of Walker’s opus is iced with deliciously infectious musical odes to the past and lyrical mockery of our biases and partisanship bordering on zealotry.
At just thirty-five seconds, “Blinded By The White” (a play on Bruce Springsteen’s “Blinded By The Light,” of course) is exactly what you think it is and, yes, it’s a brilliantly blunt commentary. Then, the funky yet smooth R&B of “Everything White,” just as bleached as grandpa’s sheets, grows into epic choruses that point the finger at us all. As our tale begins to launch into its conclusion—morals, if you will—Walker grows increasingly blunt with his commentary.
Edging toward that finale, the bluesy, smoky ‘70s AM Gold of “Pretty Crazy” sets the stage for everybody to flings their doors open wide, join together, and dance in the streets for “You Gotta Be Just Who You Are.” Urging listeners to form their own opinions, stick to their guns, set their daddy issues aside and let their hearts guide them, the track crafts a fun anthem for starting change at home. Ultimately, however, our story concludes with the minimalist love song “Forgot To Say I Love You,” a reminder that some things (okay, all things) in life are far superior to hate. Just as it all winds to a close, he cycles back to “The Singer (Reprise)” to display the vicious, unforgiving cycle of life.
Sonically speaking, American Love Story is a modern tale set to a vintage soundtrack. With heavy notes of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, splashes of AM Gold and Yacht Rock, Walker takes the music of his younger years and uses it as the backdrop for his conceptual jaunt. Due to the fact that, lyrically, this is a fully American story, it’s almost hard not to view American Love Story as being the new face of Americana: cynicism packaged as a candyfloss.
A loving ode to a divided, white-washed nation full of rampant, unrepentant racism and homophobia, with American Love Story, Walker takes a deeply sardonic look at what it means to be American in 2020. A blunt picture set to a nostalgic soundtrack that crosses genres but always retains a Pop sensibility, no matter its decade, this is an aural collection meant to jumpstart an oral discussion. For this, Cryptic Rock gives Butch Walker’s Rock Opera 5 of 5 stars.