opinion byZACHARY BERNSTEIN
Never has it been easier to be a brother in a rock band. Good old-fashioned fraternal animosity has gone the way of onstage fistfights and mudsharks. Out with the scuffles and feuds of the Davies, the Fogertys, and the Gallaghers; in with the peaceful coexistence of the Dessners and Devendorfs of the National, those pigeon-hating Followills of the Kings of Leon, and the Butlers of Arcade Fire. Of course, family has always been integral to Arcade Fire’s mythology – the anchors of marriage and brotherhood gave Funeral its pathos-driven punch, The Suburbs its Pentecostal fury, and Reflektor its giddy wariness of technological isolation.
It is of no small significance, then, that Will Butler opens his solo debut Policy with the slyly dismissive and punny question-and-answer, “Where’s the fire? Let it burn!” Let older brother and frontman Win dominate all-star basketball games and pal around with Miley Cyrus on Saturday Night Live – it’s my time to shine. It’s not a slam at his day job, it is simply an assertion of independence, one that has been gradually building since Butler first gained recognition for his Oscar-nominated work with Owen Pallett for last year’s Her soundtrack. With the blessing of his family’s influences but freed from their collective vision, Will Butler sounds like a teenager first discovering the thrill of banging away on musical instruments in the basement – it all makes for one of the year’s most surprising and fun debuts thus far.
It would be foolish to believe that Policy will never be measured against the work of Butler’s main gig, so let’s get those superficial comparisons out of the way. Perhaps the biggest point of commonality is the sound of Will Butler’s voice, with its yelping and howling that could initially be mistaken for Win’s vocals, but upon deeper inspection reveals a youthful timbre missing most of the world-weariness and doomsday augury of the elder Butler’s delivery. Clocking in at under a half hour and a brisk eight tracks, Policy exhibits relatively little orchestral grandeur, but rather finds joy in its simplicity – alternating between loose instrumentation and tight rhythmic grooves with occasional embellishment from horns or a backing choir.
Policy’s bare-bones aesthetic calls greater attention to the jocular streak of its lyrical content. The Merge Records press release promoting Butler’s album proclaims him the newest entry in the rock and roll tradition of the “holy fool” – not just distinguished company, but also a perfect description. Rather than stand atop the pulpit and preach the gospel of the Neon Bible like his brother, Will Butler is more than content to play the congregation member. Maybe he would behave, if only the son of God would reveal Himself (the rollicking sing-along “Son of God”). Maybe Butler saw God once, but he’s not sure he believes his own eyes (“Witness”). Butler asks all of the big questions and delights in possessing none of the answers, straddling the line between clarity and lunacy while gleefully insinuating how thin that line may truly be.
If there is any slight criticism to be made of Policy, it is that many of Butler’s best songs end up sounding a little familiar, albeit comforting. Butler wears his musical influences on his sleeve, many of them originating in the dingy 1970s clubs of New York City’s Lower East Side. The ghosts of Television and the Talking Heads abound on the Tom Tom Club-style mumbled vocal delivery of “Something’s Coming,” the jangly country rock of opener “Take My Side,” and the goofy, jittery punk of “What I Want.” Even though they relieve the record of its party mood, “Sing to Me” and “Finish What I Started” are plaintive, simply sweet piano ballads that recall John Lennon’s Dakota days. Butler fares best when he embraces his inner weirdo, as on the neatly wrapped dance-punk package “Anna,” which rides an insanely catchy hook of synths and Young American sax, thrown into contrast by Butler’s vocals that explore a giddily demonic lower register. There’s nothing particularly revolutionary here that will change the listener’s perception of rock and roll, but Butler’s songwriting chops and contagious energy nonetheless give the material an invigorated kick. Policy is a tour of previously established new wave and alt-rock sounds that fortunately trends much more towards loving tribute rather than empty imitation.
There will be more culturally and artistically significant records released this year – there will be albums that speak more fully to contemporary issues and albums that endeavor to synthesize today’s polyglot musical culture more successfully. But Policy does not have any of those expectations, so it is free to be its quirky self – a harmless, infectious rock record that channels the sounds and concerns of a more innocent, less technologically complicated time. Win Butler’s aesthetic can best be summarized by Policy’s closing standout track “Witness,” in which he turns 1960’s Motown into a religious rave-up, banging away on some poor piano and hollering for a witness while a “Heat Wave” backing chorus echoes his cries. It just might be one of the best songs you hear this year and it may also sound fairly similar to a song you’ve heard before. Ultimately, that’s perfectly fine - that song you’ve heard before is pretty damn good. B