One recent Saturday Night Live sketch notwithstanding, 2015 has seen very little of Arcade Fire. But who can blame the band for taking some time off after a marathon 2014 spent headlining Glastonbury and Coachella (and getting pranked by Julian Casablancas at Lollapalooza Argentina)? If anybody earned an extra long weekend, Arcade Fire did. Well, them and Beyoncé.
But there is always the one kid who never learned how to sit still. Arcade Fire’s restless exception to the rule comes in the form of multi-instrumentalist Will Butler, whose solo debut arrives barely six months removed from the band’s last show. Workaholics, man.
Butler’s first outing minus big brother Win and sister-in-law Régine is the quintessential instrumentalist’s album. Every element attests to his passion and skill for playing: the meticulous arrangements, his ingenious use of the saxophone, the laser-focused production, and the sharp riffs that outshine the decent but otherwise unmemorable vocals. But with no frontman experience to speak of Butler deserves credit for stepping to the microphone at all.
One important and immediate lesson in Policy: more is more. The stripped down piano ballad “Finish What I Started” features a losing combination of sad boy lyrics and a generic melody. On the flip side, its wildly enthusiastic foil “Witness” is Elton John’s “Crocodile Rock” for the iPhone generation. For Butler, tickling the ivories pales in effectiveness to banging away at them with unabashed fervor. And layering jaunty guitar, a swanky brass section, synths, a full choir or any hectic combination of the four atop that piano create the album’s real wonders.
It’s probably not a coincidence that the most confident and grandiose songs also supply the best lyrics. Butler’s dark humor sets guitar bruiser “What I Want” apart, bolstered by clever and twisted witticisms such as, “Tell me what you want babe and I will get it / Though it may take three to five business days,” and “I will buy you a pony / We can cook it for supper / I know a great recipe for pony macaroni.”
In a world where no one bats an eye at albums approaching the hour mark, Policy’s super brief 28 minutes seem a bold if amateurish choice. The album’s brevity forces the piano ballads, New Wave synth stompers (“Anna”) and spiritual-inspired acoustic jams (“Son of God”) to play nice in close quarters. Sometimes it works fine, other times the transitions give you whiplash.
Despite having its fair share of beginner’s mistakes, Policy is an exciting and enjoyable debut. Butler’s breakout from the confines of Arcade Fire is no doubt an undeniable gain for indie rock, but one that will most likely only get better and brassier as he goes forward.