The Art of Aging Gracefully
Butch Walker’s “Stay Gold” is a rumination on rocking in the face of regret.
Of the wealth of expressive, excellent music released in 2016 — Lemonade, Blonde, Coloring Book, Malibu, Prima Donna EP, just to name five slam-dunk examples — not much of it is made anymore by your dime-a-dozen guitar dude, band in tow. Even Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool finds the outfit having retreated into lush, approachable soundscapes. Explosions in the Sky’s The Wilderness has all the guitars but doesn’t exactly do much in the way of rocking. David Bowie’s Blackstar is steeped and marinated in post-apocalyptic free jazz. Starting with Beyoncé’s Beyoncé, we’ve been Uber’d into a new golden age of brilliant, layered, authentic pop music — rock and roll was left at the station waiting on the next train.
By hook or by crook, Butch Walker is yet bound and determined to be the one man to carry the mantle of earnest, honest-to-goodness power pop into its seventh decade. His latest album, Stay Gold, sounds like the Butch Walker-penned soundtrack to either a biopic of Butch Walker’s rough-and-tumble youth, or a mockumentary that chronicles the rise and fall of a fictional early-80s hit machine. In short: Stay Gold sounds like both a composite sketch of his career so far, and also a composite sketch of every band from 1974 through 1989 that he ever enjoyed — from Springsteen to Mellencamp to The Eagles to The Stones to Motley Crue.
Walker, at 46, is well past the age of prototypical pop stardom — and he knows it. He’s carved an intriguing, if not necessarily notorious, lane for himself. Walker is a musical mercenary and song-doctor who’s co-written or co-produced for a swath of 21st-century pop and rock luminaries: Pink, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, Panic! at the Disco, Gavin DeGraw and Ryan Adams among numerous others. On the side, he’s crafted seven solo records that play to effusive critical acclaim and middling chart performance. It’s all been artfully executed just a shade left of center and a couple currents below the radar. His latest record aims for the arena, even as his latest tour will settle in at large clubs and small theaters — playing to wistful middle managers looking to let loose and hipster music producers admiring the craft across the country.
That Stay Gold is damn fine record — a rollicking and reflective revival of musical styles and seminal life moments that will tickle the nostalgia bones of white American Gen-Xers — is almost besides the point. Stay Gold is the definitive statement on being too old to get away with it, certainly old enough to do it right, and barely old enough to wish you did it differently when you were young. Scoff if you want and call it Walker’s “midlife crisis” record, but its far too at peace with its own disease, even if the first four songs — the title track, “East Coast Girl,” “Wilder in the Heart” and “Ludlow Expectations” — blast out of the garage like your dad’s Porsche 944 convertible on the First Sunny Day of Spring, 1988.
The term “return to form” or “going back to their roots” is used a lot in music criticism, often as a shorthand for someone either sounding a lot like how they used to or sounding almost as good — but never quite as good — as they used to when the artist in question was at their cultural zeitgeist zenith. Since Walker’s career has been marked by fairly uniform excellence and obscurity (you’d be hard-pressed to know which songs on his records were singles and which weren’t, and stack-ranking his albums in terms of quality and sales is fairly impossible without a fair bit of Google and Metacritic assistance), there’s nothing to return to. This isn’t the sound of someone on his 20th anniversary trying to fit into his wedding tux or prom dress, this is the sound of a divorcee who never threw out anything he ever bought himself and still wears his Levi’s denim jacket because it still fucking fits and I like it, okay. It’s hard to go out of style when you’re not all that concerned with being in style in the first place.
Stay Gold works for precisely this reason. It’s the sound of a weathered, but no worse for the wear, professional playing what they grew up listening to, singing about things they used to do and laughing in the face of all of it. Yes, the guitars sear. Yes, the choruses scrape the skies. Yes, the ballads that toggle between Americana and Yacht Rock will leave you crying into your single-malt. It’s all perfectly compelling popcorn theater on wax. And then it’s gone.
It’s only when you dig deeper into details — the off-hand turns of phrase or well-placed E-Street guitar ring that eerily recalls “Born in the USA” specifically— that you realize that Stay Gold celebrates the art of growing old by refusing to act its age, or any age, despite its many, many overt references to aging. (The cover art is a drawing of Butch Walker’s face as a skull.) There’s oblique descriptions of sex, drugs, infidelity and debauchery. There’s also layered hints of regret, sadness, death and depth. Life is all of these things, and none of these things. The body and mind ages, but the self only ebbs and flows. Yes, you can be a rock star and make tremendously uncool music, if you want to. Yes, you can take the stage in sleeve tattoos and glam-rock jewelry while singing the soundtrack to the v-neck and jeans sect. Yes, you can make a successful living by making hit songs for pop stars half your age, but still live a fulfilling life at your own age by keeping all your favorite songs for yourself.
In that sense: aging gracefully means losing your way and then reframing the experience as finding your true path. It’s taking the twists and turns as a constant stream seeking its own level, never mistaking the waves for the ocean. In that sense — and, arguably, only that sense — Stay Gold isn’t so dissimilar from Lemonade. It’s a self-assured record that makes the music it wants to and says the things it needs to. It’s a big, deep record about taking life’s slights and adversities, our loves and losses, and turning them into a kind of caustic, fractured beauty that’s empowering and invigorating, but can only be created from the other side. And, yes, there will be regrets, but we’ll all continue to rock on — whatever the hell that means anymore, if it means anything at all.