Arcade Fire's wild man and multi-instrumentalist mixes garage, funk and new wave on his doom-laden solo debut
In the Arcade Fire family, Will Butler – the multi-instrumentalist kid brother of frontman Win – comes across as the precocious ADHD toddler of the brood. He’s the hyperactive wildman throwing himself around the stage, convulsing like Iggy Pop on a winegums-and-coke bender, bawling “WOOOAH-OOAH”s like the world’s most passionate Coldplay fan and hammering away at hand-held bass drums (when he’s not lobbing it high into the lighting rig). So his debut solo album, you might assume, would be a mess of deranged terrace chants, horny gorilla drums and the sound of the mixing desk being prised out of the studio ceiling.
Think again. The 32-year-old’s solo bow is a record crouched, itching behind the jukebox of popular culture, flapping away personal demons and jabbering about The Singularity – the age when artificial intelligence will overtake human brain capacity – and WikiLeaks. Over just under 28 minutes, as if he was desperate to get out of the studio before ‘they’ cut the power, Butler uses a broad variety of styles – classic garage rock’n’roll, new wave, lounge balladry, electric ’70s funk, synth-pop – to deliver eight edge-of-darkness diktats in that confrontational Arcade Fire snarl, but with barely any musical similarity to the band that made him famous. Take opener ‘Take My Side’, which has Butler demanding that an old friend come round to his way of thinking in the style of rockabilly night at the Ultimatum Arms. “Swore we’re friends for ever/So before you run and hide, tell me, are you gonna take my side?” he rails.
‘Anna’ holds a similarly glinting edge to the throat of Talking Heads-style electro-pop, Butler hiccupping manic falsettos as he urges his bakery worker heroine to “Take out the knife/Sharpen it twice/And get all the money” as sinister slashes of saxophone and piano gather like shadowy accomplices. ‘Witness’ is a celebratory prom rocker about being too scared to testify in court and ‘Something’s Coming’ ups the doom-mongering to apocalyptic levels. “Look out, look out, look out!” Will hisses to a backing of cartoonish funk and scabrous guitar delirium that resembles a very evil ‘Reflektor’, “When I woke up in the morning with your hands all dripping blood, my friend sweetly said ’Something’s coming, oh is it the end?/I don’t know, but it sure as hell aint the beginning…’”. ‘Here Come The End Times’, anyone?
There’s a real sense of a psyche unravelling. On the punk-pop ‘What I Want’, Butler sings of eating a “pony macaroni”, walking across the sea to Greenland, his obsession with a particular shade of blue and getting pet alligators to help solidify a burgeoning relationship. ‘Take My Side’ includes the bizarre aside “If I could fly, I’d kick the shit out of some birds”. On the quivering flamenco pop ‘Son Of God’ he even begs for salvation from himself: “If the son of God would come down”, he trembles, “Then I’d be good, I swear I’d be good”.
‘Policy’ is a gloriously unhinged sprawl of a record, but fittingly for the man who constructed sparse piano tech-paeans for the soundtrack to Spike Jonze’s 2013 movie Her, the downbeat moments resonate, too. ‘Finish What I Started’ and ‘Sing To Me’ promise an acclaimed sideline as a piano balladeer in the future. But for now, just because he’s paranoid doesn’t mean we’re not watching him.
Director: Will Butler
Record label: Merge
Release date: 09 Feb, 2015