Album Review: Will Butler, ‘Policy’
During the promotion of Will Butler’s debut solo album, Policy, the singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist compared his first full-length outside of his Montreal-based collective, Arcade Fire, to Moby-Dick.
“To me, it’s a bit like the world of Moby-Dick,” he said. “You think of it as a serious work of American literature, but it starts off with slapstick sequence and jokes and whale penises.”
Now that we finally have our hands on Policy, we can actually kind of grasp that analogy – although Butler really drives it home near the album’s end on “What I Want.” Maybe he’s satirically taking on modern day need-it-now consumerism or maybe he’s genuinely just having a laugh – either way, he produces some of his wittiest and most bizarre lines in the track, singing, “Tell me what you want, babe / And I will get it / Though it might take three to five business days / Maybe longer,” and later yet, “If you come and take my hand / I will buy you a pony / You can cook it for supper / I know a great recipe for pony macaroni.”
Policy’s lyrics are just as frenetic as Butler’s transition from one song to the next – and we use “transition” very loosely. He virtually explores any genre and sound that seemingly struck his fancy during the one week he spent recording the LP at the famous Electric Lady Studios in New York. The younger Butler can take those liberties and follow his muse wherever it takes him on Policy, as he recorded it almost entirely himself, only enlisting fellow Arcade Fire bandmate Jeremy Gara to provide drums – certainly a change of pace from collaborating with eight or more people on any given Arcade Fire album.
The result is, essentially, the same wild energy Butler gives off on stage during Arcade Fire’s theatrical performances bottled in eight short tracks. Policy moves from the lighthearted and silly, like that heard on “What I Want,” to more introspective ballads, the half-spoken “Finish What I Started” and “Sing to Me” – although even on the latter Butler sounds like he’s laughing at himself.
Sonically, Butler is just as flighty, and considering he cited influences as disparate as the Breeders, Bob Dylan and Ghostface Killah, it makes sense. From “Anna”’s new wave to the swampy funk heard on “Something’s Coming,” the newly minted solo artist touches on just about all of it on his inaugural long-player. Diehard fans will even get a particularly Arcade Fire-sounding cut in “Son of God.”
Between all the “slapstick sequence and jokes and whale penises,” it could be hard to take the Arcade Fire multi-instrumentalist seriously on Policy, but there’s something undeniably authentic in Butler recently saying he wanted to make American music on his first solo effort: “A lot of [American] music that’s been so wildly influential around the world – rock ‘n’ roll, hip-hop, jazz – has been made by young, excited people doing crazy things.”
Policy is all of those things: It’s youthful, eager and, at times, crazy. Whether or not Butler’s solo material was “forced” on him after his Oscar win for his score for 2013’s Her (co-written with Owen Pallett), we’re better off for all of its earnestness and unrestrained exploration.