Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Chris Butler's "Got It Togehter!"

When old people speak it is not because of the sweetness of words in our mouths; it is because we see something which you do not see.
- Chinua Achebe (quoted by my wife on Facebook)

As a music fan, I've been swinging after the pitch since I "discovered" the Yardbirds when I was 13, while the rest of my age cohort was digging Led Zep, Grand Funk, and Sabbath. That's right: I am old. (Remember that Police song called "Born In the Fifties?" Heh.) A few years ago, when I was busy all the time, a friend got me a subscription to Rolling Stone. Now that we are not busy all the time, my wife and I are catching up on the last five years. I'm reading Springsteen's book out of the library, and we're listening a lot to Sturgill Simpson and Kacey Musgraves. There are, however, musical enthusiasms on which I stay more up-to-date.

One of those enthusiasms is Chris Butler, whose 2013 album Easy Life -- a coming-of-age tale of its author's Every College Kid life, which was torn asunder by the 1970 Kent State massacre, to which he was a witness -- was the last record (well, CD) after Brian Wilson's 2004 Smile that I had to keep playing and playing (particularly the song "Beggar's Bullets") until my wife politely asked, "Do you have to listen to that so much?" (and she's a tolerant soul, when it comes to my musical enthusiasms).

Butler, once the songwriting secret weapon of Tin Huey and the Waitresses, is perhaps best known for owning serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer's childhood home, or for recording the world's longest recorded pop song. As a writer, Butler's a great storyteller, whether his medium is prose, film, or songs. His website is full of examples, which you are hereby heartily encouraged to investigate. Now, he's got a new album out -- available on physical CD via his Bandcamp page (with streaming/downloads to follow via estimable indie Smog Veil; link will be added here when available) -- and it's a corker.

Unlike my first fave songwriter, Pete Townshend -- who did his best work before he was 30 and spent the next decade grousing about it before becoming retrospectively focused in his 40s -- Butler's songcraft has broadened and deepened in his maturity. And unlike my other favorite songwriter, Lou Reed, who had an unexpected third hot streak in his fourth decade, Butler's less concerned with encroaching mortality (Uncle Lou's preoccupation on Magic and Loss, which just might be my favorite album of his) than with the problems of living past the age when you realize that the alternative to being old isn't being young. (He's joked about prohibiting anyone under 40 from buying Get It Togehter! -- "They wouldn't get it." I beg to differ -- but I could also be wrong.)

Here, Butler's subject matter includes an imaginary musician crush ("Songs For Guys"), the joy of winding somebody up till they snap ("New Enemy"), seasonal change as mortality metaphor ("Summer Money"), responsibility as a damper to erotic enjoyment ("Late For Work": "I ran after you like a man late for work...Not like you're late for an exam / In a class you can't stand / In a useless subject that you'll never use again"), reasons to not have kids ("Mommy Glow"), the psychic struggles attendant to quitting smoking (the Tin Huey homage "Nicotine Weather"), and the awkwardness of attending acquaintances' memorials ("Awake;" I won't give away the punchline, but it's a knockout).

The heart of the matter resides in the triptych of "Never Been Old Before" (which captures the desperation of trying to impart your cultural legacy to indifferent youngsters -- "This is the Who on Shindig! / That's a Bugatti!...I was right here on May 4th! / If you say you're bored / You're not paying attention"), "Bitch Box" ("Get off my lawn" from the porch sitter's perspective -- "What do you want? / Just don't hurt me anymore"), and the R&B-tinged "Better Than I Ever Was" (which teases triumph out of having tackled life's trials 'n' tribs).

After that, things wind down with the synth-driven "The Whirlaway" and an alternate take of "Better Than I Ever Was," which reminds us that Butler can shred on a Rickenbacker 12-string better than McGuinn, Reed, and Roy Wood put together (part of the fun of this music is hearing his pop, prog, and psychedelic instincts fighting it out). Lyrically, he undercuts poignancy with sardonic humor -- until "Touch of Gray," a song about his grandfather that he wrote in the '80s, before that Dead song of the same name. The valedictory "Curious Girls" (a '90s leftover, curiously sung by someone other than Butler) serves as a palate cleanser to this feast of song.

When I was 11, I imagined Simon and Garfunkel's Bookends as the sound of what being 21 was going to feel like. Fifty years later, this album is the sound of what I feel like right now. Listen: Chris Butler's making the best music of his life. Hear him if you can.


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