When Butch Walker released Sycamore Meadows in 2008, it felt like both a new beginning for him and the end of an era. Walker’s house had burned to the ground the year before, and he spent the songs on Sycamore reinventing his sound and injecting more layers of classic rock, folk Americana, and country twang into his writing than ever before. The result was arguably his best record, but for those who had followed Butch from the Marvelous 3 days, or jumped aboard with his early solo power pop albums, hearing him as he got older, wiser, and softer was somewhat of a bittersweet transformation. The shows on the Sycamore Meadows tour were still as rafter-raising and life-affirming as ever, but they couldn’t mask the feeling I had that Sycamore was the ending of the southern California trilogy that had kicked off with Letters and continued with The Rise and Fall. Where Letters was an album about falling in love and falling apart on the west coast, and where much of Rise was concerned with the cathartic and communal backdrop of the L.A. party scene, Sycamore left the ashes of Butch’s life in Malibu, on the street where he used to live, and no matter how good the music sounded, there was no denying that the man behind it had changed. He was looking for something new.
Butch found that “something new” in the form of a backing band called The Black Widows. While his previous four records had all supposedly been “solo albums,” Butch was never the kind of guy to pull a Billy Corgan and record every instrument by himself (though he easily could have done just that). Take a look through the album credits of each Walker solo record, and you will always a substantial list of players, many of whom overlap from one album to the next. Butch also only intermittently plays acoustic shows, even though much of his music lends itself particularly well to sparse orchestration. Quite simply, ever since he built up the courage to step up to the microphone in the wake of the Southgang days, Butch has been a purebred frontman at heart, and while, in 2010, he hadn’t had a consistent band at his back since the Marvelous 3 days, it was hardly surprising when he brought together a slate of musicians, both new and old, to be his “Black Widows.”
One of those musicians was Fran Capitanelli, a guitarist who had played on Letters and joined back up with Butch for the Sycamore Meadows tour. Another was Darren Dodd, who had arrived for The Rise and Fall and played drums with Walker’s 1969 side project as well. Keyboardist Wes Flowers had also appeared on Rise, while multi-instrumentalist Chris Unck was new to Butch’s recording team, but had been there for the Sycamore Meadows tour, memorably adding a layer of lap steel wistfulness to “Best Thing You Never Had.”
But the key members of the Black Widows—and the guys who would most heavily influence the next stage of Butch’s career—were the latest additions. In 2009, as Butch flitted from one side of the country to the other on the Sycamore Meadows tour, he brought along a pop-glam act called The Films to open for him. He was in the process of producing the band’s new album—a solid set of songs called Oh Scorpio, which dropped later that year—and since The Films fit pretty well into Butch’s kind of scene anyway, they made for an effective opener. It’s unclear now whether or not The Films still exist as a band, but Butch more or less stole two of their members for his own. The first, bassist Jake Sinclair, has pretty much become Butch’s protege, assisting with the studio work for the latest Fall Out Boy album (he was the primary engineer for the record) and sticking around for this year’s Peachtree Battle tour, even as the rest of the Black Widows have seemingly gone their separate ways.
The second new guy, Films frontman Michael Trent, was never actually a full-time member of The Black Widows, but still became Butch’s songwriting partner around the time I Liked It Better When You Had No Heart was gestating. He gets co-writing credits on half the album’s songs, and the result is a record that is immeasurably different from anything Walker had ever made before. In the three and a half years since the album first graced my ears, I’ve gone back and forth on how I feel about I Liked It Better When You Had No Heart. On one hand, it’s got my favorite title of any Butch Walker record (and one of my favorite album titles period). On the other, it just doesn’t really feel like a Butch Walker record to me, at least not in the sense that the albums in the SoCal trilogy did. It was the first album of his that I did not crown as my album of the year as a result.
Part of the reason is that I Liked It Better… can’t quite decide what it wants to be. Trent brings a passion for vaudevillian Beatles pop to the table, and many of the songs he co-writes, from the gorgeous orchestral explosion of “Pretty Melody”—the album’s most readymade pop single—to the Rubber Soul/Revolver-era McCartney swirl of “House of Cards,” add candy-coated dimensions to Walker’s songwriting that had only been hinted at once or twice on The Rise and Fall. Meanwhile, Butch seems more interested in continuing to pursue the country and folk sounds he had so thoroughly focused on with Sycamore Meadows, and songs like “Canadian Ten” (a dusky piece of alt-country awash in vocal harmonies) and “She Likes Hair Bands” (a southern-pop-rock rave-up that sounds tailor-made for a live sing-along) force a sort of disconnect in the overall cohesion the record. Sycamore Meadows and The Rise and Fall were great albums partially because they were able to distill myriad genres, moods, and directions into collections of songs that were greater than the sums of their already great parts. I Liked It Better When You Had No Heart still holds together as a record, but it doesn’t have the kind of ebb and flow that Butch’s best albums do.
Why is that? Quite simply, I Liked It Better When Had No Heart isn’t the parade of near-perfect songs that its three predecessors were. There’s no anthem like “Closer to the Truth and Further from the Sky” or “When the Canyons Ruled the City” here, no chilling ballad as stratospheric as “Don’t Move” or “Stateline.” Instead, the album highlights are songs like “Trash Day,” the lilting piece of societal commentary that kicks off the disc, or “Days/Months/Years” a tongue-in-cheek Johnny Cash-referencing rocker that absolutely should be a live show staple. Neither stand up to Walker’s best work. Meanwhile, beautiful acoustic ballads like “Don’t You Think Someone Should Take You Home” and “Be Good Until Then” have long been my personal favorite songs from the album, even though I think both sound a bit too clean and airbrushed on record for the musical styles they reflect. I first heard “Don’t You Think Someone Should Take You Home” on an audience bootleg, and I fell in love with the muggy atmosphere that the fuzzy recording built out of Walker’s voice, his acoustic guitar, and an ever-present layer of Chris Unck’s lap steel. On record, that muggy summer night feeling is gone, and while the song is still wonderful, it doesn’t have the devastating ache that could transport the song to the next level.
“Be Good Until Then,” on the other hand, is no more than a hushed lullaby that Butch wrote for his son. The lyrics are simple and beautiful (“All these things will mean more when I’m gone, just be good until then,” Butch sings in the chorus, a line that feels all the more heartwrenching now that he has lost his own father), but I’ve never felt that the studio version allowed the emotion in Walker’s voice to really come to the forefront. Butch is a world-class producer, and by this point in his career, he was rightfully in-demand by all sectors of the music industry. But on I Liked It Better When You Had No Heart, I have always felt like he over-produced his own vocals a bit, and the result is that, on close-to-home songs like “Be Good Until Then,” we don’t get the kind of goosebump-inducing moments that were so prevalent on Letters and Sycamore Meadows. It’s a small complaint—the song still sounds great, after all—but it’s one of the reasons why this album isn’t as near and dear to my heart as virtually everything else in Butch’s discography.
All criticisms aside, I really do enjoy I Liked You Better When You Had No Heart. I love the glammy synth groove of “They Don’t Know What We Know” and how it brings the album into its final act so brilliantly. I love the expansive vocal harmonies that open up during the break of the beautifully melancholy “Stripped Down Version.” I love the rollicking sensibility of “Temporary Title,” a song that splits the album down the middle between the lyrical grace of “Canadian Ten” (“I told myself ‘don’t fall in love if you don’t know their name’/But my eyes are straight wired to my heart and bypass my brain”) and the hand-clap grandiosity of “She Likes Hair Bands.” And I love the pure old-fashioned pop feel “Pretty Melody” and how much fun Butch seems to have while singing that song (he kicks the tar out of it, too). There’s a lot to adore here, and from pretty much any other artist, I think this album would be a high watermark. The fact that it’s the weakest “solo” record Walker ever made is almost moot. Tonally, it’s unique from everything else he’s done, a winterish album filled with chilly landscapes and wandering arrangements, taking Butch’s past pop and folk sounds in new directions while still retaining a few moments that are definitively “him.” The Black Widows would become more tightly-knit on the next album, and the career high period of the SoCal trilogy was clearly over, but I Liked It Better When You Had No Heart showed just how unpredictable Butch Walker could be, and even if I don’t love the result, it’s still nice to see his versatility on display.