Sometimes, albums need to be made. Whether motivated by the break-up of a long relationship, the death of a loved one, or some other life-changing incident, there are certain records that aren’t just artistic choices for the musician making them, but artistic necessities. Butch Walker is no stranger to these kinds of records. He made one of them six years ago, after losing his home in a wildfire and getting a new perspective on the things that really mattered; he did it again two years ago, hurrying to finish a set of songs so that his father would hear them before he died. Both of those albums, the 2008 LP Sycamore Meadows and the 2013 EP Peachtree Battle dealt with heartbreaking situations, but turned them into life-affirming statements. The former is a reminder that material possession is never the most important thing in life, while the latter is a love letter to Butch’s father and the relationship the two shared; both are the kind of personal and intimate records artists don’t make anymore.
If Peachtree Battle was a loving farewell to a father, though, then Butch’s seventh solo LP, titled Afraid of Ghosts, is the grieving process. And once again, it’s a record that Butch needed to make. Written in the tumultuous year that followed his dad’s passing, and recorded in just four days at Ryan Adams’ Pax Am studios, Afraid of Ghosts feels both measured and spontaneous. After making a pair of raucous studio albums with his backing band, The Black Widows, Butch returns on Afraid of Ghosts to the well that provided his two most stirring accomplishments as a singer/songwriter: Letters and Sycamore Meadows. Among Butch fans, those two records are remembered as his most personal and introspective, and for good reason. On songs like “Joan,” “Going Back/Going Home,” and “ATL,” he blended the autobiographical with the fictional, dreaming up down-on-their-luck characters as a means of examining his own life. He follows those lines to Ghosts, and comes up with a record that dares to be even more personal than his previous high points.
Not that he’s forgotten what he learned on those Black Widows records, though. Ever since his 2006 LP, The Rise and Fall of Butch Walker and the Lets Go Out Tonites, Walker has been showing more and more interest in country music. Those influences came to a head on 2010’s I Liked it Better When You Had No Heart, when he teamed up with Michael Trent—one half of Americana duo Shovels & Rope—to write an album that completely departed from his earlier style. And while he backed off the country a bit on 2011’s The Spade, in favor of loud summertime rock ‘n’ roll, the influence was still there in songs like “Closest Thing to You I’m Gonna Find” and “Dublin Crow.”
With Afraid of Ghosts, Butch Walker has made his most country/folk-influenced album yet. But those who view “country” as a four-letter word needn’t worry: this isn’t a bro country LP in the vein of Florida Georgia Line and Luke Bryan. Heck, it’s not even comparable to the arena-rock/country hybrid that was Keith Urban’s recent Fuse—a very solid album that Butch himself helped to write and produce. Instead, Afraid of Ghosts feels like classic alt-country, comparable to the work Nashville’s most legendary figures or in the vein of recent albums by the likes of Jason Isbell or Ryan Adams. Perhaps even more apt would be a comparison to Springsteen’s Nebraska, since that album’s stark hopelessness is mirrored in more than a few of this album’s key tracks. Ghosts is a record that explores similar settings to what modern radio country has been all about—bars, the highway, the south as a whole—but twists those themes in dark and often nightmarish ways.
On “21+”, for instance, the narrator isn’t the young gun sharing shots with his bros on a Friday night, playing pool and celebrating the limitlessness of life. Instead, he’s the guy behind the bar, pouring drinks for all those naïve kids. He’s the guy who’s trapped inside a small town and a dead-end life, selling a little bit more of his soul every day in an effort to keep going. In the song, he sits down after work, raiding the bar for free beer and pondering an escape. “Daddy, what will I be if I ever grow up?/Can I get out of a town that drowns everything I love?/Come hell or high water, I’m gonna leave here when I’m sober/Don’t wanna be 21 and over.” When movie star Johnny Depp barrels in with a fractious and flammable electric guitar solo, it’s a moment that could easily be played as a publicity stunt, but instead, it functions to underline the suffering and frustration of a crashed American Dream. It’s a knockout punch.
There’s a lot of darkness on Afraid of Ghosts, and it doesn’t disappear outside of the bar that’s become a prison in “21+.” In the lead single, “Chrissie Hynde,” the narrator is driving around town listening to Pretenders records and basking in his final hours of freedom before being hauled off to serve time in an actual prison. When he bids farewell to his family in the second verse, envisioning a better life somewhere on down the road, but knowing it’s too late for him to become the husband or father he wants to be, it’s a heartbreaking moment. Similarly shattering is “How Are Things, Love?”, which may or may not re-introduce us to the character from “Chrissie Hynde” after he’s been released. “Did you get rid of the ring, love?” he asks on the final chorus, accompanied by a weeping steel guitar. It’s a question left hanging in the air as the song ends, with a simple and wrenching “I hope you’re well” as the sign off.
Longtime Butch fans—especially the ones who still hold his work with the Marvelous 3, or his first solo full-length, 2002’s Left of Self-Centered, to be his highest accomplishments—might have a few gripes with Afraid of Ghosts. Gone are the power pop choruses; gone are the big rock songs; gone are the lyrics littered with sarcastic, tongue-in-cheek one-liners; long gone is any indication that Butch was ever the lead guitarist in a hair metal band. This is Walker’s slowest, quietest, bleakest, and most serious record ever. But that doesn’t mean the sunlight never breaks through the trees, or that anyone with ears could reasonably describe Afraid of Ghosts as “depressing.”
On the contrary, there are a slew of incredibly life-affirming moments on this record, thanks to the fact that, at the end of the day, everything comes back around to Butch’s dad. He’s there in the mission statement of a title track (“I’m gonna take what scares me the most, and turn it into something real,” Butch sings on the chorus). He’s there in the self-described “I Love You,” the closest this album ever gets to being jaunty or upbeat. He’s definitely there in the funereal “Autumn Leaves,” a sobering song written about cancer. And then there’s “Father’s Day,” the best song on the record and probably one of the four or five best songs Butch has written in his entire career. Suffice to say that it’s tough to get through the last verse—or to even read the lyrics—without choking up.
Sunday morning, Father’s Day
The first without my dad
As I look into my little boy’s eyes
It takes all I have
Not to break right down in front of him
When he smiles at me
See you don’t become a man
Until you lose your dad, you see
Butch has been unflinchingly honest in his music in the past. Whether he was baring his soul on a breakup song (“Cigarette Lighter Love Song,” “Best Thing You Never Had”) or spilling his entire life story in a two-minute rap breakdown (“Going Back/Going Home”), Butch Walker is one of the only songwriters I can think of who has never wanted anything to stand between himself and his fans. It’s that kind of honesty that allows for the intimate and electric connection he forges with the crowd at live shows, and the same honesty that fuels Afraid of Ghosts. It all culminates on “Father’s Day,” first with the chilling verse above, and second with a bruising guitar solo, courtesy of Ryan Adams. Husker Du guitarist Bob Mould is in there too, contributing rhythm guitar and backing vocals, but it’s the Adams solo that provides the catharsis for the song, and for the album as a whole. Every emotion you feel when you lose someone you love, from anger to grief, is conveyed in that 60-second burst of noise. The subject matter of the song might be intensely personal, but this moment at least is completely universal.
Which brings me to Ryan Adams. In the former Whiskeytown frontman, Butch has found his Steve Van Zandt, his consigliere . Those who saw the two tour together last fall know that they have a kind of rock ‘n’ roll synergy that most full-time band members don’t even share. That kinetic chemistry is arguably what makes Afraid of Ghosts as perfect as it is. After all, one of the best things about this record is how incredibly great it sounds, from first note to last. Walker, of course, is a heavyweight producer in his own right, but on this record, he handed over the reigns to Adams. The result is a disc that is instantly unique in his catalog, distinct from the already-diverse range of albums he’s made in the past. Adams brings a different sonic atmosphere to a set of songs that needed it, trading what might have been a cleaner production job from Walker for something more akin to the grimy, reverb-heavy sheen that characterized his self-titled solo album from last year. And like that record, this one feels instantly timeless.
Similarly to how Ryan Adams hearkened back to the golden days of Tom Petty and Fleetwood Mac, Afraid of Ghosts would be right at home in a stack of 1970s folk-leaning records: Carole King’s Tapestry; anything by James Taylor; even a few albums that fall more into the “rock” genre, like George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass or Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town. Part of it, of course, is that these are just great songs; another part is the arrangements, which add splashes of glorious instrumental color—the scorched-earth guitar solo in “Bed on Fire,” the wall of radiant vocal hums in “Still Drunk,” the twinkling pianos of the title track, and the haunting synths of album closer “The Dark”—to songs that could have easily been grayscale acoustic affairs. And just as Ryan Adams accomplished a rebirth of sorts on his recent self-titled record, Afraid of Ghosts manages to stay true to Walker’s legacy while also standing out as something distinctly new and different in his catalog.
There will probably never come a day when I can rank any Butch Walker album above Letters. Not only was that the first Butch record I ever heard, and not only did it play a huge part in my own musical evolution, but it also balanced everything that makes Butch Walker special into one album: big rock songs, soaring power pop choruses, and sarcastic quips on one side; sparse arrangements, tender storytelling, and raw intimate balladry on the other side. Afraid of Ghosts is the first album from Butch that doesn’t include any of the former, which will probably alienate a few longtime fans. But for those who are willing to go in without preconceived notions, this album is a masterpiece: a stunning feat of songwriting depth, emotional maturity, and melodic effortlessness that stands as one of the best albums to come out in years.
It’s also the album that Butch needed to make right now, an elegy for a lost parent that, by its final lyric, has poetically reached the acceptance stage: “Into the dark,” Butch sings, “With my father at my side.” It’s a fitting statement, because the people we love most—parents, grandparents, family members, best friends—they’re never gone. They can’t ever be gone because they live in us. They live on in the things we do, and in the songs we write. And the fact that Big Butch lives on in this remarkable LP, this staggering work of heartbreak and celebration, that’s the greatest compliment that could ever be paid to the loving son who wrote it. Condolences to everyone else, but 2015 already has its Album of the Year.