Butch Walker came out of 2015 thinking that he may never write again after the album “Afraid of Ghosts” about the deaths of his father and a close friend. Having seen him perform that album, I’m not surprised given the effect it had – turning the venue lights off so no-one could see him perform one song.
In 2016, Walker is back with a celebration of life and the album “Stay Gold“. It’s about getting out and experiencing what the world has to offer while still reflecting on some of the themes of Ghosts.
Stay Gold is definitely more of a return to 2011’s “The Spade” with big guitars and choruses that one can’t help but sing along to.
The first half of the album is classic Springsteen-esque country power rock, sticking to a tried and tested formula of driving guitar, catchy melodies and mid-song solos. There’s enough to keep things interesting, such as the spoken word verses of “East Coast Girl” recorded on an iPhone.
The production keeps the vocals authentic, sounding like you’re listening to someone sing rather than an over-produced effort that sounds like a clever computer tech just needed a base to work with. This is unsurprising given Walker’s esteemed production and writing catalogue for artists as diverse as Taylor Swift to Frank Turner.
The album sounds like it should be played on vinyl. It feels like it would be better as less than perfect as well as the fact that it appears to have two sides, the turning point marked by duet “Descending” with Ashley Monroe. Here things get less formulaic and more varied with the introduction of hints of funk and blues as well a as fiddle on “Irish Exit” and a full brass band “Mexican Coke“.
All of the songs can be taken as singular tracks in their own right, telling stories such as Walker’s move to LA in and meeting a girlfriend in an airport on “Wilder In The Heart“. Air travel themes are accidentally present in Descending where Walker and Monroe were writing a song together while Monroe was flying and said she had to leave the call cause the plane was landing!
As usual in country tinged records, lyrics can be obvious and straight to the point and as far from metaphor as is possible, and there are also songs about love and love lost and, again in Descending, somewhere in between:
There’s a memory I keep having
And I don’t know what it means.
We’re not falling, we’re not flying.
It’s somewhere in between.
Whereas “I Love You” on Ghosts talks about friends falling in love, “Can We Just Not Talk About Last Night” talks about what happens when you “cross that blurry line” even if things will be fine. “Sparks:Lost” talks about moving forward despite the memories with the album ending with “Record Store” (reminiscent of “Cigarette Lighter Lovesong“).
Record Store somewhat moves the album from joy to regret of those lost loves.
Meet me at the record store,
Even though it ain’t here any more.
My god it’s been so long.
What the hell went wrong?
I want to love like I loved you when I could.
It’s the two songs at either end of this record that sum up the story in between and gives it its perfect, respectfully defiant nod to the sadness of Ghosts. Things suck, but life goes on. You can give it up, you can repair it or sometimes you can be stuck in the middle where there is no black and white. But as Walker says:
In a world so black and white, boy, stay gold.