Butch Walker – American Love Story

For all of his talents and accomplishments, Butch Walker has never learned the power of subtlety. The best times I’ve ever seen him perform were stripped-down solo affairs, and even those seemed to lack much in the way of genuine off-the-cuff spontaneity. Other than that, his bands, his songs, his lyrics, even his production style trend heavily toward bombastic, booming, blaring, heavy-handed, clichéd and obvious. He’s a loud-and-proud sponge for rock and pop culture cheesiness but lacks imagination when regurgitating it, as if namedropping a few nostalgic song titles or silly cultural references and whipping out a guitar solo pieced together from the collected tablatures of Brian May will suffice. Every now and then, sure, it’s fun. But it gets old real quick.

So it’s not surprising that Walker’s new rock opera American Love Story, which he uses to depict and offer social commentary on our present-day “Divided States of America,” wallops us upside the head with an oversized cartoon mallet of routine stereotypes so tired and played out it’s astonishing nobody took him aside at some point during the recording of it to say, “Dude… are you fucking serious? Get real.”

So on “Gridlock” he updates Don Henley’s “Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac” line to bewilderment at seeing “MAGA stickers on Japanese cars.” Oooh, good one, Butch! Shrewd! The bullied gay kid in “Out in the Open” miraculously grows up to save the life of the rebel flag-wavin’ redneck who used to call him a faggot after he drunkenly wrecks his pickup truck, thereby changing his former hate-filled ways because of course that would happen. Walker’s “6Ft Middle-Age American Man” wants “a border wall to keep out all the spics and gays” and sings along to “Yeezy” yet locks his doors at the In-N-Out drive-thru when the employee gives him his food “just ’cause he’s a colored guy.” …Um…yeah… literally no one does that, Butch. It only happens in the twisted imaginations of people who have to dream up their own hate-crime hoaxes. I must’ve missed Jussie Smollett’s co-writing credit on that one.

He counts off “Flyover State” with “one, two, fake news” in the voice of a freedumb-lovin’ yokel. Clever, eh? Yeah, and R.E.M. already slipped “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” into one of their own songs 25 years ago, Butch, but hey, you knew that already because you have no original ideas of your own! You also gotta slip “All Right Now,” “Blinded by the Light” and “Three Little Birds” onto your album but change the “ight” words to “white” as a way to lead into a dopey song about your guilt over “white privilege”? Lameness Inc. just found a new spokesman.

Walker may believe he’s a reasoned, detail-oriented observer but he repeatedly betrays himself to be just as one-dimensional and judgmental as the clichéd caricatures he populates these songs with. Butch wants to be Bruce (right before “Blinded by the White” there’s another one titled “Torn in the USA,” double-groan), but like the irksome, preachy bore Springsteen’s become, he understands nothing. It’s only on the closing track, “Forgot to Say I Love You,” in which a man reflects on his life while driving across the country with his wife’s ashes in an urn, that the sanctimonious typecasting of the preceding songs disappears and he portrays a slice of life that’s genuinely touching, that isn’t pounded into irrelevance by overdone production or flashy instrumentation, that doesn’t drop pop culture references at every turn and doesn’t come across as overwhelmingly forced to fit a preconceived notion. It’s evidence that Walker can actually do this – and to be fair, he’s successfully accomplished as much before with selected songs on Letters, Sycamore Meadows, Afraid of Ghosts and others. But on American Love Story, it’s that old pitfall of too little, too late.

Giving Butch the benefit of the doubt, however, I suppose it’s possible that he intended American Love Story to turn out much differently, but all of his good ideas were stolen and torn to shreds by that MAGA hat-wearin’ gang of fat white guys who broke into his home and beat him, tied him up and smothered him with Confederate flags while calling him a hippie fag over and over and pissing on his Adam Lambert CDs. Yes, that’s probably what happened. And good intentions are what really matter, after all.

Butch Walker
American Love Story
[Ruby Red Recordings]