If you ever see a live Arcade Fire performance (either in person or on YouTube), Will Butler is pretty easy to spot. He’s the guy who looks a lot like Win making whatever instrument he’s playing look like it’s having the same effect on him as ecstasy. The best thing about his new solo record, Policy, is how well that danceable energy comes shining through. Aside from a ballad or two, every song is a look backward to the alternative strains of rock and roll that’ll get you on your feet and shaking like a maniac.
Leadoff single “Take My Side” gets the album going where real rocking out always seems to happen in its gestative phases: a garage. Butler wants you to know he’s not out to write a knockoff Arcade Fire record, nor is he trying to capitalize on the compositional credibility gained by scoring Spike Jonze’s Her. If we’re plotting this first song on an early-’00s indie band scale alone, the scuttling chord progressions and yelping pleas to take his side fall more on the The White Stripes side of the spectrum than the portion containing his own band. It may be the best song on the album simply because of how well it keeps this record away from being overshadowed by any of his previous collaborative output. Plus, it’s just fun as all hell.
“Anna,” the second single, ends up in territory a bit more familiar for fans of Reflektor. It’s more synthy, more definably danceable, but it’s still more restrained than anything off the aforementioned record. Butler’s a percussionist too, and this is the first track where it really shows. The simplicity of both the beat and the keys demonstrates the kind of talent which doesn’t need to show off. When the main flourishes on a song like this are some moody horns toward the end, Butler has succeeded in creating an opus as off-the-cuff as it is impressive. He doesn’t need a papier mâché head or an entire orchestra backing him when a song this skeletal can get you bopping your head just as easily.
The strength of the singles don’t necessarily translate to a pitch-perfect record. You may be of the party that thinks “I’ve got a great recipe for pony macaroni” is a gut-busting instance of absurdist humor (see: “What I Want”) but before I could process it in that manner, I was already cringing. The ballads, “Finish What I Started” and “Sing to Me,” are pleasant but not much more; the former sounds more like a retrograde prototype for “Crown of Love” than anything else, and that song debuted on Funeral over a decade ago.
Still, it’s an album far more strong than it is weak. “Son of God” is something the Violent Femmes probably wish they’d written first. The punky acoustic guitar, snappy drumming and references to Christian symbolism are just enough Gordon Gano and just enough Will Butler to make it one of Policy’s more enduring tracks. “Something’s Coming” borrows yet again from the religious worry of judgment addressed heavily on Reflektor and sets it to an apocalyptic funk groove that would fit right in on Talking Heads’ Remain in Light. Album closer “Witness” reaches back even further in rock history than “Take My Side.” The closest progenitor for its rapid fire piano stabs and “ooh la la’s” is Jerry Lee Lewis. When that sax comes in at the very end, you’ve got a song you, your parents and your grandparents can all shake a leg too.
When Butler isn’t taking cues from the music he grew up with, he’s more prone to wander around in just-nice-enough piano balladry. But when he is, he ends up with something which seems to bear his own identity more than it could otherwise. Policy is more celebration than veneration, more an awards show than hero worship. Will Butler’s in the band that broke indie rock into the mainstream. Let him throw a party for his heroes.