Following the album release and tour for 2010’s good-but-not-great I Liked It Better When You Had No Heart, Butch Walker’s first album with a new backing band called The Black Widows, a few things happened. First, Walker was signed to Dangerbird Records, which, after years of flitting between bona-fide major labels, indie imprints, and numerous independent start-up labels, finally seemed like the natural place for him. Second, the guys in The Black Widows were having so much fun touring with Butch (and writing songs together) that the majority of them decided to cut a new record. The resulting album, 2011’s The Spade, was the fastest turnaround between Butch Walker albums since the first two Marvelous 3 records. Walker, songwriting partner Michael Trent, bassist Jake Sinclair, and guitarists Fran Capitanelli and Chris Unck recorded The Spade in the space of a week in the early summer of 2011. Drummer Darren Dodd was gone, off to start a new band, and I never did hear what happened to keyboardist Wes Flowers. But the guys who stuck around were the key players anyway, and from the first time I streamed The Spade’s first single—a kinetic rush of a rock song called “Summer of ’89”—I knew that Butch was back on track.
If I Liked It Better When You Had No Heart was a fussed-over, meticulous winter album full of expansive vocal harmonies, lilting melodies, and wistful lyrics, then The Spade is the complete opposite side of the coin, a loud, raucous, messy, and spontaneous rock ‘n’ roll album meant to be played at full volume during the summer months. Right from the first moments of the record, where a blistering electric guitar breaks the silence on “Bodegas and Blood,” it’s clear that The Spade is a thoroughly different beast from its predecessor. The record hits the ground running and doesn’t slow down for the entirety of side one, flitting from shout-along rock song (“Every Single Body Else”) to shout-along rock song (“Sweethearts”).
“Summer of ‘89” immediately takes its place in the pantheon of great Butch Walker songs, with an anthemic “woah oh” refrain and a nostalgic spoken-word bridge section that transports us back to Butch’s youth, back to when he was playing rock shows and living life in the fast lane before even getting out of high school. As for the chorus, an explosive inquiry of “Can I go back to when I was a winner?/Way before the rain came and washed away the sinners,” it’s the kind of incendiary proclamation that can and should immortalize songs on summer playlists for years after they’ve stopped sounding shiny and new. Why the tune wasn’t blasting from every car radio in the country during the summer of 2011 is unanswerable, but for me at least, it will always remain a staple.
“Day Drunk” is every bit as good, a celebratory (and somewhat premature) farewell song that Butch wrote for his father. “It’s the most perfect time and the weather’s perfection/To watch as my father battles infection,” Butch sings during the verse, all building to a cathartic high-rise chorus built out of nothing more than the word “goodbye.” Fran Capitanelli gets the MVP award for the song (and frankly, for the record) with a gorgeous spiderweb of an outro guitar solo. My biggest problem with I Liked It Better When You Had No Heart was that it felt more like an overt piece of studio art than an actual rock ‘n’ roll album. Butch had just built a new studio, and that album was the sound of him breaking it in. Everything sounds far more organic on The Spade, and as Walker’s wordless wails rip through Capitanelli’s beautiful latticework of guitar during the final minute of “Day Drunk,” it’s clear that this is how the Black Widows were built to sound. Anyone who had seen them on the tour for the previous album already knew that, of course, but it was nice to see it realized on record.
Another problem that I had with I Liked It Better… was that, because Butch brought Michael Trent on board to co-write roughly half of the songs, it didn’t really sound like a Butch Walker album—at least not in the way that I had come to expect Butch Walker albums to sound. The Spade solves that problem, though not in the way I would have expected. Rather than ditching Trent, Walker goes full-speed in the other direction, inviting every member of the band to contribute writing ideas. This time around, there are actually songs where Butch doesn’t even get writing credits at all–a first, I think, for any album he had ever been a part of. The relentless ricochet of “Every Single Body Else” sounds more like a Chris Unck song than a Butch Walker one, with the former actually taking lead vocal duties for the majority of the song, while the swooning eighties pop of “Synthesizers” (a modern-day rewrite of “Come On, Eileen”) is patent Butch Walker—a remarkable feat considering the fact that it was a songwriting collaboration between Michael Trent and Jake Sinclair. The two former bandmates join together to construct something far catchier and more accessible than any of the songs they penned for The Films (their previous band), and the sarcastic lyrics and classic pure pop feel of “Synthesizers” posit it as this album’s most mainstream moment.
But while his Black Widows prove to be more accomplished writers and musicians on this record than they did on the first, Butch still takes center stage enough times to prove that he’s still one of the music industry’s foremost songwriting craftsmen. The three songs that come exclusively from Walker’s pen—“Summer of ‘89”, “Dublin Crow,” and “Closest Thing to You I’m Gonna Find”—are three of the best on the record, and all of them hit harder than anything on the last album. The late-album country-folk suite of “Dublin Crow” and “Closest Thing” is the most at home Walker has sounded on record since Sycamore Meadows. The former, a rambunctious slice of Irish folk-pop, loaded with communal handclaps and overflowing gang vocal harmonies, feels like an off-the-cuff street performance piece, while the latter borrows some of the anthemic sweep of career highlight, “When the Canyons Ruled the City” (from 2006’s The Rise and Fall of Butch Walker and the Let’s-Go-Out-Tonites!), for a song that has justifiably earned status as a Walker live show staple. Building from dusky back porch folk to rafter-raising southern rock—and using some terrific, weather-worn country music lyrics as the bridge between the two styles (“So I keep another night by this fire and drink some wine/It’s the closest thing to you I’m gonna find,” Butch sings in the first chorus refrain)—“Closest Thing” is the kind of sonic niche I would love to hear Butch build an entire album around.
But The Spade is neither a country record nor a collection of folk songs, and that’s made fundamentally clear by the way that the album concludes. The last two tracks unleash the loudest, most rip-roaring rock ‘n’ roll Walker has ever committed to tape. The tongue-in-cheek closing track, called “Sucker Punch,” was written after Butch was conked out by a drunk at a bar in Los Angeles, and serves as a particularly raucous finale to a particularly raucous album. On the live stage, the song reaches new heights, playing host to an epic electric guitar battle between Fran Capitanelli and Walker himself that crosses half a dozen genres, from Walker’s beloved hair metal to the song’s obvious Skynyrd-esque roots.
The penultimate track, however, is where The Spade reaches the apex of everything it’s supposed to be. “Bullet Belt” is a remarkably potent rock song, bursting with the kind of energy we hadn’t heard on a Butch Walker album in half a decade. From Jake Sinclair’s booming bass foundation to the relentless runaway train of a chorus, this paean to undying youth, massive nights, and bad decisions sounds utterly flammable from first note to last. It’s the kind of song that demands to be played at full volume, whether blasting from a stereo at an out-of-hand house party or ringing from the stage in the final moments of live show–a fact that makes it all the more upsetting that Butch has never played the song live. When this record first came out, I said to myself, “Well I don’t care what the setlist for the upcoming tour looks like, as long as ‘Bullet Belt’ is on it.” At the show I saw that October, The Black Widows played every single song on The Spade except “Bullet Belt,” leading me to believe that either Butch was reading my blog and wanted to spite me or didn’t feel like shredding his voice on the skyscraping chorus. Either way, “Bullet Belt” may well be the greatest live showstopper to never appear in a concert setlist, and I’m hoping that Butch corrects that error someday soon. I’m not holding my breath.
The Spade is not Butch Walker’s best album. Compared with the seminal masterpieces he released between 2004 and 2008, this album sounds positively minor, a gap record filled with quirky rock songs to fill the time in between more serious and weighty works of art. With that said, though, I adore The Spade. It’s one of my absolute favorite albums of the decade so far, and I don’t think Butch has made a more immediate or downright fun album in his entire career. The record dropped at the wrong time—the release date fell at the end of August, the day I drove back to college after a great summer in my hometown—and probably derailed its own chances of being a go-to summer soundtrack for a lot of people that year as a result. But for how much I played this album throughout the remainder of 2011, that fact hardly even mattered. From road-trip sing-alongs to celebratory rock shows, these songs have never failed to put a smile on my face, and while I like Butch best in his more balladic, introspective territory, I wouldn’t mind The Black Widows coming out of the woodwork every couple of years for the rest of his career if the albums they create together are going to be half as exciting as this one.