We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
It was a wet March night at Central London Polytechnic, and I was clutching a subsidized pint. The hip crowd had paid little, but hoped to hear something extraordinary. Simon, a semipro cricketer and manager-driver for the headliner, had tipped me off: This gig was not to be missed. He was doing sound that night for his pals; they called themselves Suede. They launched into “The Drowners,” which the U.K. music press would inevitably uphold as a masterwork. It wasn’t; it was just a hooky amalgam of Morrissey’s tragedy and Ziggy Stardust’s brash androgyny. Unfortunately for Simon, me, and the multitude, two songs later the band was horribly, wretchedly out of tune. Butler, the band’s pimple-faced, long-haired guitarist, had no electronic tuner, and he made little effort between songs to get it together. It was a memorably bad show. But in the ensuing weeks, Suede’s star rose, and the following few shows, which were nearly flawless, were packed. For three years, Suede was one of Britain’s biggest bands.
Butler left the London Suede in 1994; collaborated with Neneh Cherry, Edwyn Collins, and others; and scored U.K. hits with a soul singer named David McAlmont. After flirting with joining the Verve, he set out on his own and started to, like the prince in the tower in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, SIIIING!
The former Suede guitarist-songwriter has just released a studio solo album, People Move On, with which he has become a studied ’70s revisionist. He sings and plays all but the drums, saxophone, and violin. It seems we’ve re-entered an era in which an upstart becomes a star, then turns into a singer-songwriter to reflect upon it all. Butler’s transformation has occurred in scarcely six years. In the U.K., soulful rock journeymen have already held a coup: Paul Weller, Ocean Colour Scene, and Oasis regularly hold court in the Top 10.
People Move On bears a resemblance to George Harrison’s sprawling All Things Must Pass in its syllables, earthy tones, weariness, spiritual themes, and celebrations of the joys of heavy-duty monogamy. Butler has lost a father, gained a kid, come down from a decadent rock-star trip, and landed on stable, honest ground. Unlike the mystical Beatle, Butler doesn’t chant and play raga; he constructs grand, orchestrated, multifaceted symphonies around the guitar. It’s miles away from Suede’s flamboyant, gender-muddled, Camdentown melodramas.
Butler’s debut has a contemplative, timeless, triumphant feel, and vintage sounds and textures to match. Here and there, he steps into the shoes of his icons to maintain it: He does Nick Drake on “You Light the Fire”; on “Not Alone,” the album’s natural single, Butler grabs a string section from Phil Spector’s valise for dramatic effect and brings us home. It’s a cathartic, driving little pop epic, one that belongs on dusty collector 45s. “You Just Know” is a huge guitar stomper that’s more than a little Verve-yButler is a genius with guitar sounds, and his six-string prowess threatens to steal the song. He falters, however, on the title track, which should be the centerpiece of the record; he urges the listener to “Throw your staff down from the citadel and run away.”
It’s impossible not to take Butler seriouslyhe’s a skillful producer, a guitar whiz, and a natural singer. He has, however, grown up in a predictable way, to nail all the hallmarks of the serious solo artist: piano and strings; soul-bearing vocals; and the universal themes of love, life, loss, etc. Check, check, check, check. People Move On feels more like an awe-inspiring exercise than the liberation of a rock ‘n’ roll wonder-worker. Often the lyrics make little impression, and the growing-and-learning themes wear thin, rendering the major-league production touches schmaltzy. The 27-year-old Butler doesn’t yet have a song in him that’s as mature or complex as the sounds he has mastered; he hasn’t arrived anywhere unique. He’s just hopped off the bus somewhere in singer-songwriterland. People Move On is by-the-book, disturbingly in line with tradition. Why must history inevitably repeat itself this way, and why is a talent like Butler in such a rush to let it? CP
Bernard Butler plays the 9:30 Club Wednesday, Aug. 19.