Even if you weren’t aware that Butch Walker is a professional songwriter to the stars, you might have suspected as much based on the slickness of his latest album, I Liked It Better When You Had No Heart. It’s largely a modern country-rock record, with occasional divergences into Motown and Brill Building pop. Walker’s backing band, The Black Widows, is clearly made up of top-shelf musicians playing the way pros do, and his pastoral pop tunes are frequently spruced up with elaborate string sections. The songs are catchy and thoroughly inoffensive. Even the occasional sex reference is sold broadly, cloaked in the sort of unobjectionable wordplay that wouldn’t offend your grandmother. Yes, this is the work of a songwriting specialist, complete with all of the good and bad that phrase implies.
The good part of the equation is that Walker never dips into mediocrity. In fact, he’s practically scientific in his approach to songwriting. All of the songs have hooks you could swear you’ve heard elsewhere, and you may have actually heard them elsewhere, but Walker probably knows that his audience won’t go out of their minds trying to pin down the source of his melodies when they can just enjoy the familiarity of it. For chrissake, there’s a song on this album with a chorus that’s stolen from somewhere I can’t place called “Pretty Melody.” That’s like a cruel joke.
But that same desire to please keeps the proceedings almost constantly unexceptional. There’s nothing urgent, nothing challenging, nothing to distinguish this album from a thousand other alt-country albums. The character study songs are a collection of quirks, contrivances, and clichés, like the Drive-By Truckers without the lyrical attention to detail or the frequently ferocious musicianship. There’s a line in “She Likes Hair Bands” (a song that feels a bit like a lazy reappropriation of Wilco’s “Heavy Metal Drummer”) that exemplifies Walker’s problem with lyrics: “She likes Mary Jane but she says she doesn’t like the smell/She’s got a baby and by the way she walks I can tell.” That line is just a mess of forced rhymes, G-rated audacity, and character details that simply feel fake. The sad sack protagonists at the heart of songs like “Don’t You Think Someone Should Take You Home” and “Be Good Until Then” are thinly drawn, leaving Walker spouting platitudes like “it’s okay to cry… it’ll let you know you’re human in the end”. Maybe some people need that type of shallow reassurance, but to the rest of us, it’s corny and patronizing.
Nonetheless, I Liked It Better When You Had No Heart will certainly appeal to plenty of people. That’s the point of it. Walker aims for widespread accessibility, and that’s perfectly respectable. Most people don’t treat the musicians, albums and songs they enjoy as consecrated, and those of us who do should remember that we are probably the unreasonable ones. Butch Walker writes mainstream songs, and he does so reasonably well. I guarantee you that none of his fans have watched some noise act play the same bottom-heavy chord as loudly as possible for the better part of an hour. Then again, Walker is on tour with Train right now, and Train fucking sucks. Never mind, argument retracted. Now where’s my Sun O)))) record?