I live with a professional musician and it makes me feel inadequate sometimes. I had the hardest time reading sheet music and no motivation as a kid to improve on that, so my musical expressions are often relegated to karaoke or campfire sing alongs. I can’t tell you what key a song is in or the tools of the trade that go into production. I just have to go by feel. I’ve wondered if that was enough in the past few years.
When me and my roommate were driving around listening to the Panic! at the Disco album Vices and Virtues, I got on the topic of Butch Walker’s “production tropes.” The use of handclaps, lots of call and response, and the fact the music makes you feel like you’re in a giant room. The roommate’s response was “Yeah, Butch makes it sound like he’s recording in a church.”
And you know, I never heard such an accurate description of that sort of feeling that exists in Butch’s production work. Even in his solo work, things felt intimate, yet grand. You’re in a holy space where all can be possible and you have the option of burning it down with passion or falling onto your knees sobbing. Basically, all the parts of going to church with my grandparents that I liked that didn’t involve the Republican image of Jesus. I like feeling like I’m a part of something bigger. It’s why I go to concerts and burns.
There are still elements of that feeling in Afraid of Ghosts, his seventh studio album. However, it feels more like it was recorded in a haunted house. Not the cheesy Halloween kind, but the dilapidated one in your neighborhood that everyone swears in haunted. Everything is quiet and somewhat unsettled as you speak in low whispers as to not disturb what may or may not live there still.
And that’s not a bad thing. Not at all.
Afraid of Ghosts comes from a similar place that Walker’s 2013 EP Peachtree Battle came from, which is the death of his father Big Butch in August 2013. However, where Peachtree Battle was learning to say goodbye, Afraid of Ghosts is learning to live with the loss. Walker is more vulnerable on this record, lowering his usual shield of snark and sarcasm with a smile to show the kind of thoughts he’s been having since his father’s passing. There are still the signature lyrical stories that Walker tells there, but there’s such a feeling of loss carrying over. For more reasons than one. If you don’t believe me, the title track says it all and sets the mood. Though, a track like ‘Bed on Fire’ feels intimately relatable as well if you’ve ever felt like you’ve had to fight for the attention of someone who complicates your heart. (Well, that, and it’s just sexy as hell.)
However, even with all the darkness that the record touches on with the loss of a parent and songs about going nowhere fast and going to prison, there are still beams of sunlight that show through the cracks of this old house. ‘I Love You’ is the eternal reminder of telling the people you love that you love them while you can because you’ll always still have it after they’re gone, ‘Still Drunk’ is a bittersweet tale of reconnecting with people from your past, and the final track ‘The Dark’ shows that the path to healing after loss is something we all deal with in our own way. We might never be the same again, but we’ll still heal. I lost my Gran and my Grandpa within two months of each other four years ago. It still hurts, but if ‘Father’s Day’ and ‘The Dark’ reminded me of anything, it’s that moving on doesn’t mean forgetting. It just means sometimes you get your closure by riding down the PCH or drinking Jack Daniels at seven in the morning as you watch the last words to a loved one burn up and dance in the wind.
Unlike Butch’s previous albums, this one wasn’t self-produced. Instead, Ryan Adams took the board. I’ll admit that I don’t know much about Adams besides his production work on Fall Out Boy’s Pax-Am Days EP, but between that one and Afraid of Ghosts, it’s obvious that he has an innate ability to get an artist out of their comfort zone in strange ways. I love Butch’s production work, but this album didn’t need to be a church. It needed to be that old house filled with personal history.
Maybe I can’t talk about how the recording on tape sounds technically besides “this album sounds like magic with my good headphones in and I need it on vinyl soon,” but I know this is an excellent record. One that’s starting to teach me to trust my feelings again whenever I listen to music.