Though the musician and composer Will Butler’s work ranges from the soundtrack to the Spike Jonze film “Her” to current-event inspired songs for the Guardian, he is probably most well-known as a member of the indie rock band Arcade Fire. His debut solo album, titled “Policy,” came out March 10 via Merge Records, and despite its relatively short run-time (27:15), it is a lot to take in.
Indeed, Will Butler’s debut boasts an astonishing breadth of influences, at times evoking Buddy Holly, Talking Heads, The Violent Femmes and more. This is not altogether surprising given the ambition of Arcade Fire’s stadium-filling sound, but neither Will Butler nor Arcade Fire are mere arena rock performers. After all, Arcade Fire, the same band that won Album of the Year for their 2010 record “The Suburbs,” also recorded their debut LP “Funeral” in a freezing Montréal apartment in the wake of family tragedy before becoming one of indie rock’s biggest success stories. Like his band, Will Butler’s ambitious music is rooted in emotional energy. Though he experiments with a variety of genres — folk, early rock n’ roll, synth rock and piano balladry to name a few — the music on Butler’s debut album is anchored by his raw intensity.
“Policy” opens with ample energy, as the momentous, crunchy guitar of “Take My Side,” evokes influences as varied as Chuck Berry and The White Stripes. Butler cries out over and over “Are you gonna take my side?” By the end of the song, the answer is clear; the audience is along for the ride. Butler instantly shows off his virtuosity as the rock n’ roll rhythms of “Take My Side” dissolve into the synth-dominated song “Anna,” a tune reminiscent of artists such as Talking Heads and David Bowie.
Such dynamic contrast does not end here. Rather, Butler forges ahead, further experimenting with different genres. “Anna” slows into the stirring piano ballad of “Finish What I Started.” The opening chords instantly recall the likes of Radiohead, yet the intro is sparse. Butler is emotionally bare, wrestling with fame and identity with lines like “Someone, please, can you take the credit,” and “Someone, please, tell me what my name is.” The sound grows as choir vocals enter behind Butler’s plaintive croon, “The feeling I felt hasn’t faded / It’s far too real.”
As if in answer to this feeling, the next song “Son of God” immediately signals a 180-degree turn. Slow piano is out; fast-paced acoustic guitar is in. Just like the music, Butler’s lyrics exhibit contrast, as he yells, “Nothing lasts forever, but some of this shit’s getting pretty old,” as if sticking to one genre, to one sound, bores him. Song to song, Butler is constantly reinventing himself.
At times Butler’s energy is diverted to tongue-in-cheek irony such as on “What I Want,” when he cries, “Tell me what you want, baby / And I will get it / Though it might take three to five business days, maybe longer.” At other times, such as on the following song “Sing to Me,” his energy is diverted to wistful pleas for comfort — “Sing to me / Cause I’m so scared / Of what is waiting through the door.” Butler manages to transition from witty banter to heart-stirring, earnest emotion with the apparent exertion of the flick of a wrist and somehow manages to make it convincing.
Whatever persona, genre or emotion he embodies, whatever mask he puts on, Butler dives fully into it with reckless abandon. Where his band Arcade Fire’s albums often focus on and explore in-depth a singular concept, Will Butler’s album “Policy” dives headlong into myriad concepts and styles, examining love, religion, humor, depression and fear, each with a brief but passionate glance.
In an interview with Pitchfork, Butler said, “I’m drawn to every genre,” listing influences from rock n’ roll to hip hop to jazz, and it shows on his debut album “Policy.” Yet somehow, despite his scatterbrained musical dynamics and wide variety of influences, Butler manages to create an identity for himself as an artist, an identity that is instantly engaging and makes us wonder what musical melange he will cook up next.
Contact Tyler Dunston at tdunston ‘at’ stanford.edu.