Letters is the best album of the past ten years, and the best album of the millennium thus far. How’s that for kicking off today’s installment of my “Butch Walker Week” coverage with a bit of hyperbolic praise? Except that I don’t think it’s a hyperbolic statement at all, nor do I think there is a record on the planet—with the possible exception of Born to Run—that has meant more to me in my life than this one. So far with Butch Walker Week, I’ve discussed four great records and dozens of terrific songs, music that I love and hold very near and dear to my heart. Letters blows all of that away in 14 songs and 50-some minutes of the most stunning and mature music that Walker has ever made. To date, Letters is the most cohesive record in the Butch Walker discography. It’s a stunningly gorgeous and sinfully catchy portrait of heartbreak and love on the west coast, sequenced perfectly to represent the ups and downs of a relationship. It’s lyrically brilliant and loaded with hooks, beautifully written and arranged to take advantage of fuller instrumental textures than ever before. The production is lush and enveloping, quite possibly my favorite example of studio work on any record that has ever graced my ears. And Butch’s flawless vocal performance towers above the whole thing, wrapping these songs in grand emotion, laugh-out-loud sarcasm, subtle sadness, and euphoric grandiosity; he has never sounded better.
The tongue-in-cheek opening of the last record is traded here for a quick burst of sun-soaked, Beach Boys-esque harmony, buoyed along in the intro track—called “Sunny Day Real Estate”—by rustic vinyl cracks and dreamy falsetto vocals. On record, the track leads into “Maybe It’s Just Me,” a bittersweet anthem of regret and residual feelings of love, surrendered up into the arms of closure. Fans will also know the “Sunny Day Real Estate” intro as the first few seconds of a fantastic b-side (simply called “Sunny Day”), which is better than most artists’ singles. The fact that Butch left this infectiously catchy gem on the cutting room floor shows just how much amazing content he already had in place for Letters. However, the track is absolutely worth tracking down and has played, for me at least, as the de facto Letters opener for almost as long as I’ve been listening to the album. When the CD in my car skips to “Maybe It’s Just Me” after 30 seconds instead of going into the keyboard groove of “Sunny Day,” it still throws me for a loop.
With that said, “Maybe It’s Just Me” does make sense as proper opener. Despite plenty of upbeat tempos and blissful power pop choruses (the first of which appears right here), Letters is an introspective and emotionally downbeat record, and one listen to the lyrics on “Maybe” revealed to fans that this album wasn’t going to be an album full of party anthems or Marvelous 3 re-treads. “I can’t live if you’re not happy, I can’t live if you cry/But I can live without you if it makes you smile,” Butch belts during the rousing chorus, singing in a higher register than we’d heard from him before. The Butch Walker on display here is sad, sober, and grown up. As I mentioned in yesterday’s review for Left of Self-Centered, Butch had already been divorced by the time the Marvelous 3 were blowing up, but Letters is really the first time he channeled those emotions into song. By the time this album hit the streets, Butch was already with the woman he was going to marry, but the fragments of his former relationships, of all the other girls he’d ever had, loved, or let slip through his fingers, they manifested themselves as songs right here on this record. In his 2011 memoir, Butch explained how, for years, he refused to write love songs because he thought they were a worn-out cliche of an industry he had come to loathe. On Letters, he finally ditched that rule, and the result was a record full of love songs.
One of those is “Mixtape,” the first Butch Walker song I ever heard. Every once in awhile, songs come along and force a titanic shift in your life. For me, those kinds of songs have always fit into one of three categories: songs that made me understand, initially, the power that music could have; songs that coincided so perfectly with significant life moments that they became immortal life soundtrack staples; and songs that made me fall in love with the artists that would form the backbone of my musical obsession for years to come. At different times, “Mixtape” was all three of those things, wrapped up into one perfect, four-minute pop opus. I still remember the first time I heard that song, on some lonely February Sunday in 2005.
I was a mere 14 years old at the time, bored out of my mind, probably wishing I could go hang out with friends, but ending up stranded at home instead because I clearly couldn’t drive myself anywhere. “Mixtape” was a Limewire discovery, a song I stumbled on while searching around for more sounds to satiate my burgeoning thirst for new music. From the moment the song’s core piano melody and opening lyric hit my ears (“You say hello, inside I’m screaming I love you”) I was hooked. Everything about the song sounded amazing to me, from the emotion in Butch’s voice to the way the songwriting teetered in this fascinating no man’s land between ballad and rock song. The idea of this song, the thought that music and mixtapes and song lyrics could communicate things between people that couldn’t be spoken otherwise, that fucking knocked me on my ass, and I’ve been shamelessly soundtracking my life and religiously making mixtapes ever since
One of the things that really elevates “Mixtape” above the songs that were big on the radio at the time—and “Mixtape” SHOULD have been a huge radio hit; everyone I introduced this song to back in the day, whether they became a big Butch fan or not, still has this one in regular rotation on their iPods—is the production. More than anything else he’s ever produced, more than the songs he wrote with Avril Lavigne or those records he did with Fall Out Boy or Dashboard Confessional, and more, I think, than any of his own work since, “Mixtape” is the perfect representation of the apex that Butch’s producing skills reached with this record. From the subtle acoustic chords that wash over the piano at the beginning of the song to the rootsy slide guitar moan that carries the song into its second verse, from the punchy breakdown of a bridge to the army of back-up vocalists on the final chorus—listen to the last “so much more than that” and prepare to swoon—“Mixtape” sounds flawless without ever sacrificing emotion or intimacy.
In fact, everything on this album sounds like a million bucks, from the big, upbeat pop songs—the windows-down-sing-along of “#1 Summer Jam,” the pure kinetic rush of “Uncomfortably Numb”—to the ballads. The scenic dusk pop of “So At Last” sounds like it was ripped right from the middle of a Jackson Browne record, while “Joan” brings storytelling poetry, a grand piano, and a dramatic string arrangement on board for the album’s first big emotional wallop. Those wondering why Letters is considered to be Butch’s most introspective or “depressing” album need look no further than the ballad-heavy back half, which even years after the first time I heard it, still hits like a bag of bricks. Sure, the album’s loudest rocker is thrown in to break up the emotional intensity (see “Lights Out”), while a pair of relatively lightweight three-minute ditties (the lively “Race Cars and Goth Rock” and a simplistic, enduring love song called “Promise”) fill the penultimate slots. “Race Cars” is especially fun, loaded with tongue-in-cheek lyrics and a downright infectious chorus: it’s nice to see that the sarcastic and cynical Butch from the old days was still alive and well here.
But pain, loss, and heartbreak abound on the rest of the songs that make up Letters. “Best Thing You Never Had” is a fan favorite and a live staple that, until very recently, was Butch’s go-to showstopper. It’s the ultimate bitter break-up anthem, a rage-fueled epic that somehow spits venom and tears at the same time. The ragged acoustic chords that herald the song’s arrival sound like the final tenuous threads of a relationship tearing apart, and the way the song just goes on and on, building in texture and volume, Butch’s voice getting higher and more strained, is supremely visceral. Seeing this song live is a religious experience and an exercise in raw emotion. Walker goes famously over the top, jumping off drum kits, breaking guitar strings, and on some nights, still singing himself close to tears on the song’s blisteringly cathartic climax, repeated cries of the words “YOU NEVER HAD,” soaring over everything like the pain of a broken heart that feels like it’s never going to mend.
“Best Thing” is not the best song on Letters, though I think many people hold it as the Butch Walker gold standard. Years of live performances, each with a more frenzied routine than the last—picture Marty McFly jamming the “Johnny B. Goode” guitar solo at the end of Back to the Future and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what Butch does when this song hits the climactic section—have, I think, dulled the impact for me. And while I’ve still returned to “Best Thing” to soundtrack every romantic disaster I’ve ever had in my life, there are songs on Letters that mean infinitely more to me.
The first of those is “Don’t Move,” in my opinion the greatest song Butch Walker ever laid down on record. It’s a fiercely powerful love song, loaded with vocal acrobatics, chiming instrumentation, and a luminescent studio sheen that makes it feel both expansive and claustrophobic at the same time. The chorus is pristine, but it’s not until the song hits the bridge that it really enters the stratosphere. Over the past decade, I’ve fallen in love with artists who save their best, most emotional songwriting moments for the bridges of their songs. From Chad Perrone’s Wake to the Dangerous Summer’s War Paint, some of my favorite albums are defined by that short 30-second break that comes between a song’s last two choruses. “Don’t Move” was the beginning of that obsession, and it remains, to this day, the perfect example of just how chilling a well-executed bridge can be. “I can move you like an earthquake, listen to me as my hands shake/’Cause I want you, I need you, I can’t live without you, baby,” Butch belts at the peak of the song. The sheer vocal prowess is enough to make it an amazing moment (Butch hits a high C), but it’s so much more than that. Lovers connect, empires fall, and stars explode as “Don’t Move” barrels toward its conclusion, and Butch remains at the eye of the storm, singing with the kind of honesty and reckless abandon that is all too rare in pop music. It’s my favorite vocal performance ever captured on record.
If “Don’t Move” wins that title, though, then “Stateline” certainly contends for it. How many artists would relegate what is arguably their best song to hidden track status? Not many, but even coming after the album’s proper closer—a simple and wrenching piano ballad about death, called “Thank You Note”—“Stateline” is the perfect way to lay Letters to rest. Most artists are lucky to attain the emotional heights of this song once on record, maybe even once in an entire career. By the time “Stateline” expands and crescendos past its hushed acoustic opening, Letters has reached those levels time and time again. Where much of the record is covered in pristine pop production, though, “Stateline” is unapologetically raw and intimate. You can almost hear Butch’s voice straining and echoing through the room where he pushed record, building to wordless wails halfway through that recall “Jungleland,” “With or Without You,” and countless other classic songs where the singer really lets loose. The song, which is about an absentee father and the pain he feels in knowing that he will never know his kid, rings as a resoundingly personal statement, even though the story isn’t even Butch’s to tell. Walker wrote “Stateline” about a friend’s situation, but the way that he manages to dig deep down and capture the persona and emotion of another person’s story is a surefire sign that, on this record, he had become a world class songwriter.
Many artists find their golden moment by writing about heartbreak and strife. My favorite Bob Dylan album is Blood on the Tracks, written about his own divorce; my favorite Fleetwood Mac record is Rumours, recorded by a band that was tearing itself apart from within. The best album of 2013 is The Civil Wars, which chronicles a fraying relationship in real time. With Letters, Butch Walker tapped into his past and channeled all of these emotions he had been building up for years–stress, exhaustion, pain, frustration, anger, guilt, and yes, love–into his own reflective heartbreak album, and it’s single best record he would ever make. Letters came out in 2004, the year that I really got into music thanks to albums like Jimmy Eat World’s Futures and the Killers’ Hot Fuss, but it’s stayed near and dear to my heart in a way that really no other record—except, again, Born to Run—ever has. Butch has put out a lot of great music since this one, but Letters continues to resonate with me like few records do because Walker dares to be completely intimate and personal and because he holds nothing back. In turns heartbreaking, uplifting, and cathartic, Letters is arguably the most complete record of the millennium so far; it’s certainly my favorite.