Coincidentally, I first listened to Butch Walker‘s new album Stay Gold in the midst of the Rio Olympics – not that the title track has anything to do with gold medals per se. A crystalline, feel-good rocker, the song opens the recording with a splash. The energy tightens further in “East Coast Girl,” with drily spoken verses alternating with triumphant-sounding pop-punk choruses whose power-guitar sheen belies the tinge of sadness in the lyrics.
Things slow down to a mid-tempo Springsteen-romance feel in “Wilder in the Heart.” Early 1980s-era Springsteen is a fat presence in “Ludlow Expectations” too. With their crashing walls of sound, all that’s missing in those songs is the raucous sax solos.
Up to that point the album maintains a likable flavor and solid songwriting, but I started to hope for a change, for something like the snide humor and quirky writing of the songs on his 2010 album I Liked It Better When You Had No Heart. What shows up first, though, is “Descending,” a country ballad-duet with Ashley Monroe. Walker shows here, and throughout, how he’s one of the premiere vocalists of 21st-century rock as well as one of the greatest songwriters.
The Celtic-tinged “Irish Exit” arrives with a wink. “I can’t take this party no more,” sings the narrator as he heads for the door, as if acknowledging that he can’t stay cooped up in any one shell for long, however fun it may be.
“Mexican Coke” has a thick melody, emotionally weighty vocals, and a funky yet pounding beat, which combine to suggest the anguished fun of 1970s Elvis Costello plus a touch of the holler of Gary U.S. Bonds. The song, inspired by Walker’s move to Los Angeles, segues into the looser, slower warble of “Can We Just Not Talk About Last Night,” which after a few listens has wormed its way into becoming one of my favorites.
The album closes with two songs of reminiscence. “Spark Lost” is a classic story of remembering early love: “nothing left but a memory and a heart stopped on a dime…there’s a cold static on the radio where it used to come in fine.” It’s an ace metaphor for the lost spark of youth, with a twinge of regret that’s rare on this album of energetic rock. Walker is an artist who’s been around the block a time or three and seems to have gained only creative strength from the process, never mind the iconic “back problems, grey hair, [and] craving a Porsche” admitted by the narrator of “East Coast Girl.”
The title of the gentle acoustic ballad “Record Store” speaks for itself. Our romantic spirits demand the impossible even though we know it’s just that: “Meet me at the record store/Even though it ain’t here anymore.” The raw sincerity on display here distills the honesty of the whole album. There are hundreds if not thousands of guys across America trying to make music like this, but they nearly always end up sounding maudlin, cheap, derivative, or all three. Walker doesn’t break new ground here either, but he raises the freshest crop out of this heartland ground I’ve heard in ages.
The 10-song album was over before I knew it. It ends up carrying just enough variety after all. And as Walker says, “I think it’s all just rock & roll.”