Few albums can put a smile on my face as quickly as Sycamore Meadows.
That’s probably an odd thing to say, since Sycamore Meadows is not, by most metrics, a happy album. Butch Walker’s fourth solo LP was birthed in part from the California wildfires that destroyed his home, most of his possessions, and the master tapes for every song he’d ever recorded up to that point. The songs catalog breakups, painful journeys of self-discovery, and the record business being irreversibly fucked. The album’s last track is a sobering piano ballad that bears one of the most emotional vocal performances Butch ever put on tape.
And yet, Sycamore Meadows still makes me smile.
So many of the most important albums in my life are the ones that found me in times of strife and held me together when I couldn’t do it myself. I believe a similar statement would hold true for most other people who love music to the point of insanity. We cherish those albums because they seem like old friends to us. They were there when we needed them most, and so we can’t ever forget them.
For me, Sycamore Meadows was not that kind of album. Instead, it was a record that came into the world at a time when everything in my life felt like it was going well. My what a difference a season had made, on that front. A few months earlier, I’d been driving to my first day of school blaring Jack’s Mannequin’s The Glass Passenger, trying to nurse the wounds of a summertime heartbreak. By the time Sycamore Meadows arrived, though, the humid summer swelter had been replaced by a crisp autumn chill, and my sadness over the girl who’d left had been replaced by acceptance. I was in a different place, and I was ready to stop wallowing in sad songs and embrace something more hopeful.
On first blush, Sycamore Meadows seems like an odd album to play that role. Many of these songs are crushing. “Vessels” finds its central couple so fractured that they can’t even sleep in the same bed any more, a far cry from the days when they used to lay entwined on car hoods, snuggled beneath the stars. “Passed Your Place, Saw Your Car, Thought of You” finds its protagonist pining over a former flame who left him for another man and then passed away tragically. And “ATL” is a coming home song in its most desperate form, featuring a chorus where Butch begs his hometown to need him just as much as he needs it.
If I had been in the mood to wallow some more, Sycamore Meadows would have done the trick. But what really drew me into those songs on those cold November afternoons back in 2008 were the flickers of hard-won resilience. “Going Back/Going Home” both directly addresses the fires that took Butch’s home and recounts his entire career in a mini “rap” section in the second half, but it does so set against a triumphant electric guitar lick and a wash of bells and keys that sounds like a holiday season celebration. “Ships in a Bottle” likens walking away from a doomed relationship to walking away from a pile of ashes and rubble—a few burns on your skin, but your heart still very much beating. And “Closer to the Truth and Further from the Sky” sounds like pure Springsteenian romanticism, a rousing anthem suggesting that redemption and rebirth is just around the next bend of a rattlesnake canyon highway.
To a lot of people, Sycamore Meadows sounded heartbroken and reflective. I recall many fans pointing to it as Letters part two, a reference to the album that was, at the time, Butch’s most emotionally intense and intimate work. To me, though, Sycamore sounded hungry and unbridled. It wasn’t an album about ruminating on regret and loss. Instead, it was an album about stepping back, re-evaluating, realizing which things were truly important, and then taking the bold first steps toward a new start. “Closer to the Truth” sounded like rebirth because it was one: this album recalibrated Butch’s career and set him on the path that would lead to brave and unflinching records like Afraid of Ghosts and Stay Gold.
The way Butch tells it in his 2011 memoir Drinking with Strangers, he’d lost the plot leading up to Sycamore Meadows. His 2006 album, The Rise and Fall of Butch Walker and the Let’s-Go-Out-Tonites!, played as a wry critique of the L.A. party scene, but Butch admits he was getting swallowed up by that scene himself. He also says he was struggling with writer’s block and becoming complacent and materialistic in his lifestyle. That all ended in November 2007, when a friend phoned Butch to tell him that his Malibu home had burned to the ground. Fortunately, Butch and his family were safe, away for a string of shows on the East Coast. However, aside from a few guitars and a hard drive full of in-progress songs that his buddy had managed to save, everything was gone.
The fire burned up guitars and cars and master tapes and photographs. It burned up recording equipment and furniture and family heirlooms. It burned up memories and stability and the life Butch Walker thought he was building for his family. But it also torched his complacency and burned down the walls that had built up between him and his creativity. One of the first things he said publicly after the fire was “I finally know the difference between going back and going home.” That line would become a song and a mission statement for the new album, and ultimately, for the next decade of Butch’s career.
Sycamore Meadows—named after the street where Butch’s Malibu home used to stand—is a literal rise-from-the-ashes LP. There are flickers of sadness, but it’s mostly forward-looking, finding plenty of time for raucous fun. (See the bombastic horn-blasted funk of “Ponce De Leon Ave.,” or the runaway train rocker “The 3 Kids in Brooklyn,” still the preeminent concert showstopper in Butch’s catalog.) In the fall of 2008, feeling like I was living my own rise-from-the-ashes narrative, I loved how vibrant and bright Sycamore Meadows sounded. Even the sad songs were fleshed out and colorful—like “Ships in a Bottle,” initially demoed as a devastating acoustic ballad, but awash here in gorgeous 70s-style guitar and a rousing horn arrangement. I especially loved “Closer to the Truth,” a song with so much fire that I immediately wanted to play it loud enough to make good on the chorus, about static singeing the speakers “like a thousand hymns of inspiration.”
When I listen to Sycamore Meadows now, it takes me back to those days of optimism: to driving around my hometown as the season turned from fall to winter; to my last performances in my last high school musical; to the realization, as I filled out college applications and wrote bad admissions essays, that my youth was almost gone. I like to say now that Sycamore Meadows was the first record I fell in love with after I really grew up. I think that’s why it continues to mean so much to me, and why it still feels so recent and fresh in my mind—even though I’m currently writing a piece to mark its 10-year anniversary.
Sycamore Meadows was never my favorite Butch Walker album. Letters was so formative for me that I doubt anything will ever knock it off that pedestal. But if I had to recommend a starting point for a new Butch listener, I might point to Sycamore Meadows. In a lot of ways, it feels like his best album: the one with the purest and truest songwriting accomplishments, and the one that best distills his influences—Springsteen, Petty, Costello, Prince, and a growing lean toward country music—into a cohesive and emotional whole. It’s also the record that sounds the most like a classic, with gorgeous and carefully wrought arrangements on every track, stacking guitars, pianos, glockenspiel, strings, horns, gang vocals, an explosive rhythm section, and even woodwinds on top of Butch’s honest storytelling. Most Butch Walker albums are loud, loose, and spontaneous, recorded in quick bursts and focused on the essentials of guitar, drums, bass, and piano. On Sycamore Meadows, Butch took his time and worked in layers, even going so far as to cancel a planned tour with Jesse Malin so he could re-record the entire album from scratch. It’s the album in his catalog that feels most like a conscious attempt at making a masterpiece. It absolutely is one.