Sound — 7
Butch Walker's music has taken several different forms. Early in his career, he was slinging guitar for the short-lived glam metal band, SouthGang, then parlayed that into being the frontman of the equally short-lived power pop trio, Marvelous 3, in the tail end of the '90s. It wasn't until after these projects that he found his big calling card in the music industry - making hits for other artists. Beginning as a co-producer and co-writer in 2002, Walker has a decorated resume of studio work with a plethora of musicians - from pop-punk heavyweights Fall Out Boy, All Time Low and Panic! At The Disco, to country music all-stars like Keith Urban and Taylor Swift; along with some curveballs as well, like Sevendust and even Lindsay Lohan (though that's not necessarily a pleasant surprise on the list).
But even being a busy bee behind the scenes, Walker still showed desire to be his own musician. Maintaining a solo career over the past decade, his self-written and self-produced albums have presented his longest-lasting music project as radio-friendly pop rock tinged with folk/country influence. In the last couple of albums, he had even begun to corral a permanent backing band, entitled The Black Widows, but after Walker's father passed away a couple years ago, Walker would craft his next album into something very different from what he had done before.
Enter "Afraid of Ghosts," Walker's softest album of his discography. With almost every song built primarily from Walker's acoustic guitar, piano, and gentle vocals, the album strongly evokes coffeehouse solemnity rather than the barroom jukebox jubilance that his other albums always strived for. Walker then stems from this sound in two key ways - the first of which is carefully adding contained elements for sonic support to songs - from subtle accordion layers in "Afraid of Ghosts" and "Still Drunk" to warm synth pads in "I Love You" and "The Dark" - without throwing off their delicate nature.
The second variation in Walker's songwriting on "Afraid of Ghosts" is more intervening. Not being able to entirely quit the electric guitar cold turkey, Walker brings it back in the middle stretch of the album to give things an energy boost. First properly easing the electric guitar into the fold in "Chrissie Hynde" and the blues cut "How Are Things, Love?," Walker then starts utilizing it to crest tracks with power ballad solos, like in "Bed on Fire" and "Father's Day," and the solo in "21+" is contributed by, oddly enough, Johnny Depp (yes, you read that right). So while juicing up a section of the album as well as tiding over any Walker fans that want more than fingerpicking acoustic arpeggios, the electric guitar parts successfully avoid clashing with the key disposition of the album.
Lyrics — 7
With "Afraid of Ghosts" being Walker's artistic response to the death of his father, Walker decided to go whole-hog on writing vulnerable lyrics, imperatively complementing the morose tone of the album. But while Walker has his songs that directly deal with his grief towards his father's passing (in "Afraid of Ghosts," "Father's Day," and "The Dark"), the album is generally inspired by the painful but necessary process of reflection. This is shown in another vulnerable topic: Walker's failed marriage. Though he opens up about his sincere passion in that relationship in songs like "I Love You" and "Bed on Fire," he ends up airing out the dark feelings of that part of his life - reflecting upon his existential crisis of feeling stuck when he married young in "21+," as well as confronting his feelings of continuing to co-exist with his ex-wife in "How Are Things, Love?"
Along with the need for reflecting upon the pleasant and unpleasant, Walker shows his own struggle between how to cope with his tragedies; mainly in the dichotomy of living in the past versus moving forward. Though the concept of the titular phrase "afraid of ghosts" refers to the idea of being frightened by past events that tangibly can't harm you anymore, Walker still pines for the implausible wish of turning back time to when things were ideal in "Chrissie Hynde." But ultimately, Walker knows the only answer to the struggle is to move forward, no matter how heavy the baggage, in the closing "The Dark," and though the imagery of riding a motorcycle into the unseen is a considerably ham-handed way to express that ending sentiment, he gets the point across.
Overall Impression — 7
From writing and recording the album to the day of the album's release, Walker was well aware of how polarizing "Afraid of Ghosts" would be in his catalog. Essentially staying in a gear of gloom on all fronts, "Afraid of Ghosts" seldom has the moments that would appease listeners that want a Butch Walker album in the expected vein of upbeat pop rock. This ultimately proves a good thing for the album, because to consider the alternative, if Walker felt the pressure to put some token pop rock tracks on the album to try pleasing everyone, it would only dilute the somber disposition of the album for worse. So while those entrenched in Walker's regular style will likely be turned off by the new album, "Afraid of Ghosts" works exactly in the way it was intended to.