Butch Walker

A bar band balladeer playing songs in a smoky dive, hammering away at the piano and spilling his soul onto the keys as the hour gets progressively later and the inattentive crowd gets progressively more intoxicated. Or maybe there isn’t much of a “crowd” at all and he’s mostly playing for the bartender and a few drunk regulars. For so many musicians, these sentences describe a day-by-day and night-by-night reality. Getting gigs is easy; getting the audience to pay even an ounce of attention is hard. And yet, if you live that life, you still show up every night, seeking solace in the songs you’re playing and hoping that, one of these nights, even one other person will find meaning in them too.

We tend to think of careers in music as glamorous, but if you’ve actually tried your hand at one, you know the reality is something else entirely. It’s late nights and long tours and loneliness. It’s drunk people talking over your songs. It’s the sting of polite but passionless applause. It’s bar fights breaking up your set and derailing any momentum you felt you had going onstage. It’s the hope that maybe this song, maybe this show, maybe this night will be different; maybe this one will be the big break. And it’s the crushing disappointment of your reality consistently falling well short of your expectations.

On his 10th full-length album, Butch Walker turns all of this not-so-glamorous musical reality into fertile ground for the best music he’s made in years. The album in question, Butch Walker As…Glenn, is a not-quite-concept-album about a bar singer named Glenn (Butch’s middle name) and the songs he plays in his set on any given night, in any given pub, in any given town in America. Unlike Butch’s last album, 2020’s full-blown rock opera American Love Story, there isn’t really a firm narrative here. The concept is little more than a framing device, with the album starting on an introduction of the titular singer, ending with an encore, and featuring a skit about one of those aforementioned bar fights somewhere in the middle.

But listen to the songs themselves and you can hear how the spirit of the concept bled into Butch’s writing for this album. All the big-dream romanticism and all the weathered weariness of being a working-class career musician is there in the music, and the album knits those conflicting emotions and moods together into a surprisingly poignant treatise on resilience and the beauty of a no-frills, knockout song. Will Hoge once wrote: “Keep on dreaming if it breaks your heart.” Glenn is all about the musicians who keep dreaming that dream year after year, looking for moments of transcendence amidst colorful stage lights and bar floors sticky from decades worth of spilled beer. Some nights, you find that transcendence. Other nights, it might as well be a billion lightyears away.

Fittingly, Glenn flits from big, bold, and hopeful (check “Roll Away (Like a Stone),” a slick little sing-along rocker that wouldn’t have been out of place on Butch’s 2016 LP Stay Gold) to sad and slow (“Don’t Let It Weigh Heavy On Your Heart” and “Lean Into Me,” the pair of raw, gorgeous piano ballads that anchor the album’s second half). Glenn is the first record since 2004’s Letters that Butch wrote primarily on piano, and that origin lends the songs a different kind of weight than the guitar-centric tunes he’s spent most of the past two decades making. Sometimes, the piano leads Butch toward different influences than he draws from on most albums – perhaps a Billy Joel (“Leather Weather”) or an Elton John (“Holy Water Hangover”) or a Meat Loaf (“State-Line Fireworks”), rather than typical go-to favorites like Petty or Costello or Springsteen. Other times, the black and white keys lead to songs that feel almost hymn-like – or, at least, the types of hymns that might be sung at a Sunday morning congregation made up of hungover sinners.

Butch has said that the sadness of early-pandemic led him back to the piano balladeer albums he loved when he was young, which in turn informed the direction of Glenn. The record itself doesn’t necessarily feel like a piano album all the time – thanks in large part to the crack band of collaborators Butch made the record with in Nashville. In particular, guitar maestros Sadler Vaden (you’ll recognize his tone from all those Jason Isbell records) and Aaron Lee Tasjan (whose own albums sound like a glam-country version of Tom Petty) shine here, and help bring some muscular full-band punch to songs like “Roll Away (Like a Stone)” and “The Negotiator.” All this to say that Glenn doesn’t sound like the stripped-down, scaled-back albums that we’ve come to think of as “quarantine records.”

But the existential sadness of the moment that birthed these songs still lingers, like the pain from an old broken bone. And, improbably, that sadness informs some of the album’s lightness and levity too, to the point where the work ultimately feels uplifting when taken as a whole. A record about a bar band singer unlikely ever to find success could be a devastating examination of broken dreams in other hands or at another time. But because these songs sprang from the pandemic moment, because they came to be at a time when so many people were hungry for the opportunity to either play or listen to live music, because coming out of that black pit has made us appreciate even those local acts that happen to be playing on stage while we’re out for a drink with friends, Glenn feels different than it might have felt four or five years ago. Maybe a modest life as a musician ain’t such a bad thing. Maybe just getting the chance to be on that stage and commune with other people for an hour is enough. And maybe, just maybe, being thankful for the little moments of beauty and transcendence in our lives will save us from feeling like we took them for granted, should they ever disappear again.