'American Love Story' Review: Butch Walker's new love story about hate is powerful, heartfelt, vivid and moving
Lovingly crafted with a lengthy backstory 'American Love Story' is a tale of bigotry and ignorance that finally comes full circle to the light of unconditional love and acceptance
The talented artiste Butch Walker is known not just for his stellar efforts as a singer-songwriter, but also for his legendary prowess as an in-demand producer. After plying his trade in popular bands like SouthGang and Marvelous 3 till the turn of the new millennium, Butch Walker really hit his all-conquering stride when he embarked on his solo career in 2002. Besides the appeal of his own indie pop/rock songs, Butch Walker has really earned a formidable reputation in the last two decades thanks to his production skills and soundboard wizardry, even earning himself a Grammy nomination in the process.
Thus far, Butch Walker has done production work for some of the biggest names in the music industry, including Taylor Swift, Adam Lambert, Fall Out Boy, Avril Lavigne, Green Day, Rob Thomas, Pink, Keith Urban, Weezer, and Panic! at the Disco, just to name a few of his hitmaking collaborators.
Butch Walker has also released eight successful studio albums thus far, with Rolling Stone even terming him "one of America's best singer-songwriters." His latest effort, a concept album called 'American Love Story' drops on May 8, and we took a listen to the 13 tracks on the lovingly-crafted LP. There's also a moving fictional backstory that prompted this full-length offering, which has been described as "A love story about hate."
The story centers around a man called Bo. Bo grew up filled with bigotry and hatred, thanks to his (often absent) father, who hated immigrants, homosexuals, and people of color. Bo took to regularly beating up a gay kid named Willard in school and ended up lost and apathetic. But several years later, Willard would go on to save Bo’s life, pulling him from burning wreckage after Bo attempted to drive home drunk one night. Bo then has an epiphany and starts to question his life choices, now seeing his white male privilege in a different light.
The newly-changed Bo would go on to fall in love with & marry a free-spirited party girl named Paris. They eventually have a son of their own, called Brad, who is cultured, athletic, talented, and also gay. When Brad came out to his parents, although it wasn't easy, Bo feels the karmic shift in his life, and comes to terms with his hateful past.
Finally accepting his new life values centered around unconditional love, Bo plans to travel & explore the country in an RV with his family - however, Paris then tragically dies of cancer. Having lost the love of his life, Bo decides to go on the road with his son, a successful touring musician. So, they load up his RV for the tour and travel the country with Paris’ ashes in the center console, spreading them across every state.
While strengthening their father-son bond, they get to see the entire country and all of its colors and cultures. Life is beautiful if you make it that way.
That's the backstory - now on to the music!
The opening track, 'The Singer' starts off with a medley of voice samples that enquire "Are we having a conversation?' before the dreamy lyrics permeate - "I’m just the singer on the stage / It’s a job, but most think it’s not / I'll slick my hair back with some stuff / So I can be the singer on the stage."
'Gridlock' then opens up with a bang, as chiming guitars and Walker's soaring voice take center stage. "I don't wanna’ go back to the daily routine / Don't put me back in that world" the lyrics plead. "Feeling barely alive / I don’t know if I can let it go / When collisions are all I know." The aching song also points out the dissatisfaction in the protagonist's life - "For a moment I think about my mom and my dad / Was this the life that they wanted or was it really that bad?"
The song then closes out with two voices (one of them is Bo) saying what they think freedom in America entails. What is striking is the disparity in their perspectives, with one favoring bigotry and guns, and the other supporting equality and gay marriage.
'Flyover State' pairs a cheerful 'Brimful of Asha'-esque progression with a story from Bo's perspective - "Sexuality, religion, politics / Nobody ‘round here challenges that list / We’ll shoot you and your Judas kiss / It’s just the fucking way it is." There's also snippets of 'Closing Time' and a chorus set to the 'The Lion King' soundtrack that goes "Freedom dumb my way." It's an artful sendup of the bigot's mentality, and this is just the first piece of the story.
The bouncy '6Ft Middle-Age American Man' continues the character sketch of Bo with "FREEDM on my vanity plates / Full of bricks I’m gonna’ haul / Building up a border wall / To keep out all the spics and the gays / ‘Cause I’m a 6ft middle-age American man / My Jesus wore a frown and a red ball cap / Raising my children not to question that / Just like my daddy and his before."
The flamboyant 'Fuck It (I Don't Like Love)' is done in triumphant rock opera style, with Bo learning about love on his own terms, from being molested and discovering porn to eventually getting a girl pregnant in 9th grade and realizing he doesn't believe in love.
'Divided States of America' takes on a somber tone, as Butch Walker narrates Bo's current mindset - "I was sold a dream on TV screens / By parties full of jerks / While an alien from somewhere else / Is going to take my work."
The '80s-vibed 'Out In The Open' is a moving story told from the gay kid Willard's perspective, as he talks about saving his tormentor Bo's life after a road accident. But it's the lyrics that really shine here - "A habit's hard to break / You were born into what you became / And I was born this way / I can try to show compassion / Before you take that shot / Out here in the open... / Whether I like it or not."
The '80s synth-pop continues in 'Torn in the USA' as the lyrics examine the terminal state of Bo's mind - "How am I gonna’ know who to hate, oh baby / When I can’t even ever relate, oh baby / I’m just another white man, with no identity."
The R&B/gospel-themed 'Blinded By The White' is the moment that Bo's perspective shifts, when he realizes the depths and extent of his white privilege that has been passed on from generation to generation. "Everybody’s blinded by the lightning / Nobody hears the falling rain / Everybody’s hiding in the silence /We all are all to blame."
The retro cheer and soulful strains of 'Pretty Crazy' details the story of how Paris and the newly-illuminated Bo fell in love. "Any kinda love is a good love to me / And this shit is off the chain / When she puts that hair up in a bun / Turns to sunshine from the rain / Now my world got dark, and I lost the heart / Before you I was living a lie / And while all our heroes are dying baby / You’re making me feel alive."
'You Gotta' Be Just Who You Are' is a joyful celebration of love, acceptance, and happiness, as Bo embraces his gay son Brad. "I know you’re different / I’ve seen the signs /But please don’t think I’m bummed at all / My heart is blind / If your new boyfriend / Is good to you / That’s more than I can say for my folks / That ended poorly too /You’ll teach me tough love / You’ll teach me pride / We’ll keep things upfront / And never hide / You will remind me / Embrace the unknown / Form your opinions / Make them your own."
Things close on a melancholy yet optimistic note, as the saga of Bo, Paris, and Brad winds down to its climax in 'Forgot To Say I Love You'. Heartfelt strings and piano resound as Bo bids farewell to his dearly departed wife while looking forward to the future - "I forgot to say I love you / Telling you now won't do us any good / If there's a God that's up above you / Hope he treats you better than this world could / You’d be proud of the man that our son’s become / He makes more money than I do / And he married John last spring / The pages of my story here are done /The road was long and dark at first /But I wouldn’t change a thing."
The closing lines echo the lines from the opening song, making us reflect on the journey we've taken in Bo's eventful life. "Now I’m the singer on the stage / It’s a job, but maybe it’s not /And I’ve finally come of age / My dad and I are in some parking lot /This Winnebago’s done its time / Crossed every state borderline / Played quiet and played loud / My mom she would be proud / I thank you both I was allowed to be / The singer on the stage."
Lovingly crafted with a lengthy backstory, 'American Love Story' is a generational tale of Bo's bigotry and ignorance finally coming full circle to the light of unconditional love and acceptance, told in a spectacular, moving way. It's a monumental effort from Butch Walker, and the album is crisp, composed, and stunningly delivered. His multi-platinum albums as a producer notwithstanding, Butch Walker can count 'American Love Story' as one of his greatest feats to date.