“I don’t know what to write about after this record. I’m saying it all. The well is tapped. Maybe no more albums after this one.”
Butch Walker tweeted those words in January of this year, stoking rumors that his then-still-untitled 2016 album might be his last. I don’t expect Walker to follow through with this particular threat. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from almost 12 years of holding Butch to be my favorite artist, it’s that the guy has an incredible, incessant love for music. He’s the kind of guy who would retire and then be antsy to get back into the studio after a month. If Stay Gold does end up being the last Butch Walker album, though, then it’s sure as shit the right kind of album to go out with. 2016 has been a dark year in a lot of ways, and just reading through the headlines these days is enough to make even the most sensible person want to stick their head in the sand. But Stay Gold is all brash guitars and sunny optimism, a quintessential summer record that stands as this year’s most celebratory work. Rarely has Butch’s love for music, lyrics, stories, and guitar solos been on such gleeful display. Frankly, this is the kind of life-affirming album we need right now. At least, it’s the one I needed.
Kicking off with the title track, it’s immediately apparent that Stay Gold is a far cry from Butch’s last album, 2015’s Afraid of Ghosts. That record was stark, lonesome, and largely acoustic, harnessing the producing talents of Ryan Adams for Walker’s most haunting album ever. The catharsis was necessary. Butch lost his father in 2013, and Ghosts was the sound of his grief, splattered out across reels of tape. Before that album, Butch had written plenty of sad songs, but he’d never written a completely sad record. His albums always had bits of levity and humor sneaking in around the edges, even when they were dealing with some seriously weighty shit. Case-in-point was 2008’s Sycamore Meadows, an album largely inspired by the California wildfires that took Butch’s house and every material possession he’d ever owned. If I wrote an album about that subject, it would be super depressing. Sycamore Meadows, however, still included a song called “Song for the Metalheads,” with the key line being “the record business is fucked, and it’s kind of funny.” Leave it to Butch to find the comedy in his own despair. His tendency to do just that made Ghosts all the more shattering, because it was the first time where he let the darkness in completely.
Fittingly, Stay Gold is the direct opposite: it’s Walker’s happiest and most “fun” album, coming after his darkest and most heartbreaking. The characters on this record are people who find the gold in their lives by trying to never let the darkness in. The protagonist in the title track—which, as you might expect, heavily references S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders—lives in a dead-end small town and spends most of his time smoking dimestore weed in his backyard. The song, though, isn’t all Springsteenian regret, as it easily could become. Butch went there on Ghosts, with the song “21+” depicting what can happen to someone who gets stuck in first gear and never gets out of his hometown. “Stay Gold” could be about characters in the exact same town, but the difference is that these guys see the hope and beauty in their situation. “You better stay gold now pony boy/Don’t let ’em get you down,” Butch roars on the chorus, “While the locals all work for coffee/Yeah, remember that you own this town/Not a soul is gonna listen/Yeah, your scream won’t make a sound/In a world so black and white, boy, stay gold.”
“Stay Gold” is a youthful remembrance of a song, likely inspired by Walker’s own experience of growing up in (and getting out of) a small town. He’s explored that territory before, like in “Summer of ’89” from 2011’s The Spade—this record’s closest parallel in the Walker discography—but here, the material feels less wry and more poignant. Butch has gone on record saying that Stay Gold was largely inspired by the love affairs of his young life, and it reflects that inspiration beautifully. Instead of feeling like an aging rock star looking back at his wild years, Stay Gold internalizes its nostalgia and ends up sounding like an album Walker could have recorded much earlier in his career. There’s a shaggy playfulness to songs like “Mexican Coke” and “Can We Just Not Talk About Last Night” that is nothing short of infectious. Horn blasts and tinkling pianos drive the former, which skitters along like a lost Costello cut from the This Year’s Model days. A gorgeous ’70s-style guitar sound dominates the latter, which tells a quirky and sensual story of two close friends who, after years of dancing around their feelings for one another, finally take things to the next level. As you might expect, things get a little awkward. “We can talk about the way I’ve always had a thing for you/But can we just not talk about last night?” Walker begs in the chorus. The question is funny and touching at the same time.
Walker has always been a storyteller in his music, but rarely has he relied as heavily on narrative as he does here. Inspired, perhaps, by running a recording studio in Nashville, Walker turns Stay Gold into a study of character and vignettes. The album could hardly be classified as country—it’s more of a classic rock exercise, though it’s plenty heavy on twang—but Walker’s attention to minute storytelling details has definitely sharpened. The best example is “Record Store,” the sparse acoustic ballad that provides the album with its final chapter. The song tells a story of two old friends reconnecting after years without seeing each other. Walker casts himself as a guy who never got out of the Bible belt. The woman, meanwhile, is played by Suzanne Santo of the Americana group HoneyHoney. In the story, she’s the rock star—the one who got out, the one who found success. She’s also the broken one, stuck in an unhappy marriage and wondering where it all went wrong. With some of his best lyricism ever, Walker captures the heartbreak of her situation—as well as the hope that comes with seeing a friend from her youth and getting a glimpse at a different kind of life. It’s comparable to a Jason Isbell song in both sound and attention to detail, which is definitely a lofty compliment.
The dichotomy of lovers going their separate ways and lovers reconnecting after years apart is the core of what makes Stay Gold special. On the John Hughes-flavored “East Coast Girl,” Walker reminisces about a girl he used to know before arriving at the song’s key line: “Baby, where are you now?” On “Descending,” a plane coming out of the clouds and preparing for landing is a metaphor for a couple’s doomed relationship. Country singer/songwriter Ashley Monroe lends her vocals for an ethereal duet, making the song an obvious side one counterpart to “Record Store.” On the gorgeous “Spark: Lost,” Walker remembers how close he became with a former flame’s father, only to have that bond nullified in the collateral damage of a breakup. And in “Wilder in the Heart,” a chance meeting between two ex-lovers in an airport terminal reignites their fire for one another.
Bearing a loose, anything-can-happen vibe reminisicent of Springsteen’s The Wild, The Innocent, The E Street Shuffle, Stay Gold is a summertime opus through and through. It’s also arguably Butch’s most consistent record ever, and probably one of his best. Every song delights, from the sweeping highway swells of “Ludlow Expectations” to the raucous drinking song that is “Irish Exit.” In the lead-up to the album’s release, Butch identified Springsteen, Billy Joel, and Elton John as the primary influences. You might also catch shades of Costello, The Cure, and Bob Seger, not to mention glimmers of the trio of guys Butch has worked with most heavily over the past few years: Ryan Adams, Frank Turner, and Brian Fallon. The result is a thrilling cocktail of sounds that never drags, runs together, or stops being an absolute fucking blast. It feels classic and modern at the same time, and so thoroughly Butch that I can’t imagine any of his longtime fans being disappointed. To my ears, at least, Stay Gold is an instant classic.