2008 was the most prolific year of Butch Walker’s career, a remarkable feat considering what was going on in the singer/songwriter’s personal life at the time (more on that in today’s other review). February brought the release of a terrific live album called Leavin’ the Game on Luckie Street, which had been recorded at a marathon Atlanta show the previous year. It wouldn’t be until November that Butch’s next proper solo album would drop, but in the meantime, fans were treated to the first (and thus far, only) side project in his discography. The album in question, called Maya, was released under the moniker of 1969 (Walker’s birth year) and features Butch on vocals, Michael Guy Chislett on lead guitar, and Darren Dodd on drums. Both Dodd and Chislett had played on Butch’s previous solo record, 2006’s The Rise and Fall of Butch Walker and the Let’s-Go-Out-Tonites, and Dodd would remain a core member of Walker’s band until 2011. Chislett, meanwhile, ended up joining up with scene favorites The Academy Is… after The Rise and Fall, playing on two of the band’s albums (the Walker-produced Santi and the pop-heavy swansong, Fast Times at Barrington High) before they called it quits.
Needless to say, Maya is a one-off, and while it’s an interesting experiment, I’m fairly glad it didn’t take up much of Butch’s time. I have mixed feelings on side projects in general: sometimes, I think a frontperson getting away from their band or their common patterns of songwriting is a very good thing that can reveal previously-undiscovered potential (see Brian Fallon’s album with The Horrible Crowes). However, when you love a band or a performer, you want to get as many albums and as many tours from them as possible, and side projects can distract from that. The best thing about 1969, then, is that it didn’t distract much from Butch’s main thing: we still got a new solo album in 2008, right on the every-two-year schedule that Walker had been working with ever since Marvelous 3 dropped Readysexgo! in 2000. The worst thing about Maya, on the other hand, is that it’s the most disposable album in the Butch Walker discography.
Don’t get me wrong, there are still some great, great songs here. “Wreck Me,” for one, is an all-time-great Butch Walker song. By the time this record came out, the propulsive “Wreck Me” had already been floating around in demo or live form for a few years, but getting a high-fidelity recording of it here made Maya more than worth the price of admission. Chislett’s effect-laden guitar sound is on fine display here, ringing through the arena-ready texture like bell; the Edge would be proud. “Wreck Me” is also the closest Maya gets to sounding like a Butch Walker solo album (or, more accurately, like a Marvelous 3 album), which, as the record moves forward, is something that die-hard fans will likely yearn for. “Drunk like a solider on an enemy line, drawing down heaven with an absinthe mind, it’s you,” Butch sings on the second verse, one of the many terrific lines in world-class song. Fans who were looking for Butch to do a straight-up rock song again after the idiosyncratic glam of The Rise and Fall or the emotive power pop of Letters were undoubtedly pleased.
Of course, “Wreck Me” is “Butch Walker 101” by this point—he even played it at a few of his “fan request shows” a few years back—but it isn’t the only redeeming thing about this very guitar-heavy side project. 1969 save a pair of spectacular ballads for the end of the record that, even if the mid-section is a bit dodgy, will still make you want to hit repeat. “Save a Place” is a gorgeously spacey gem that sounds like it was written specifically to raise tens of thousands of cigarette lighters (or cellphones, I suppose) into the air at the end of a stadium rock show. Chislett’s wall of guitars at the climax sounds like it was borrowed from a Coldplay record, while Butch’s careening falsetto is probably the closest he’s ever come to sounding like Bono (though his vocals on this album’s “Ready to Explode,” a song built on repetitious piano chords and a ’90s-alt-rock chorus, come close). The proper album closer, “Am I Still On,” is every bit as a good, a spacious, echoing song filled with heavenly vocal harmonies, distant guitar feedback, and a memorable keyboard loop. At the end of the song, the album’s potent mission statement—a repeated cry of “don’t let your heart slip away,” which also rang through album intro track, “Why the Suspense”—is reprised for a satisfying and effective conclusion.
I always like when albums bring back bits and pieces of earlier songs right in the heart of the grand finale. There are so many wonderful album closers—“Keep Us Around” from Chad Perrone’s Wake, “Free” from Valencia’s We All Need a Reason to Believe, “Holiday” from the first Boys Like Girls album, to name a few—that use the reprisal technique to become even more epic and all-encompassing, and it always adds a nice touch of cohesion to the proceedings. No one could say that Maya isn’t a cohesive record—from full tracks to interludes, the album maintains a very specific mood throughout. The problem is that, for the bulk of its runtime, Maya just isn’t a very interesting record. The most compelling thing about this album is that it puts Butch in completely different territory from where we’re used to hearing him. Instead of bright pop hooks, shiny studio sheen, and fun, tongue-in-cheek lyrics, Maya is dark, abrasive, electronic, industrial, and serious.
Credit Chislett for the shift, since he wrote the vast majority of the music by himself, only recruiting Butch later—during the impromptu jam session that birthed “Wreck Me”—to add mood-appropriate lyrics. The mood is one of dingy intoxication, which sometimes works—the late-night-Vegas cruise of “Wednesday” sounds like it could be a lost outtake from the first Killers record, while “Offline” is a cinematic exercise in jarring tempo shifts—but more often than not, it just feels like Walker is being held back by Chislett’s meandering compositions. Chislett is a wizard of a guitar player, no doubt, and this album shows that on every track, but to say he lacks Butch’s gift for melody is a vast understatement. Butch still does what he can to wring compelling hooks and memorable verses out of these arrangements, but he’s out of his element most of the time, and it shows in how forgettable the album’s middle section is. (One listen to the bonus track, a gleeful run-through of the sleazy James classic, “Laid,” displays just how much this album could have done with an injection of pop sensibility.) I still revisit the highlights frequently and I appreciate the talent of these three guys in every note played on this record—Butch does some great work as a pick-up bass player, and Darren Dodd’s thunderous drum fills are welcome anywhere—but Maya is probably the only post-1997 Butch Walker album that I don’t love.