One year after California bushfires destroyed his home, Butch Walker returns to his solo career with Sycamore Meadows, a cathartic effort that mixes ballads with anthems, heartland rock & roll with power pop, and sincerity with tongue-in-cheek humor. Walker is nothing if not a multi-tasker, having spent the bulk of 2008 in the production booth with artists like P!nk and Katy Perry. Balancing those gigs with a solo career is no easy feat, and the fact that Sycamore Meadows is quite good -- solidly crafted throughout, with clever songwriting and spirited performances -- is testament to Walker's wide-ranging talent. After jumpstarting the album with "The Weight of Her," a standout tune that molds Tom Petty's influence with glammy swagger, he spends much of Sycamore Meadows talking about his various homes, from the songwriter's native Georgia to the urban enclaves of Los Angeles and Brooklyn. Hollywood becomes "a town made of glitter girls and cocaine friends," Atlanta becomes a '70s soundscape in "Ponce De Leon Ave," and "Passed Your Place, Saw Your Car, Thought of You" confines its geography to the outside of a lover's house, trading the specificities of Walker's other songs for a more universal approach.
He's a thoughtful songwriter, at times intensely autobiographical -- particularly during "Going Back/Going Home," an acoustic crash course in Butch Walker's career -- but also attentive to the characters who populate everybody's lives, from the cute urban girl who works "at American Apparel, selling women's clothes to guys" to the overly stylized, disparaging hipster who "always wears a sweater even in the warmest weather." Such humor runs the risk of sounding holier than thou, but Walker's judgment is too tuneful to be condemning -- and often, he revels in the very scenes that his songs critique, training an accusatory light on himself as well as his subjects. Elsewhere, Sycamore Meadows gets personal with a number of breakup songs, the best of which -- a sad nugget of boozy blues named "Here Comes The" -- features background vocals from P!nk. "Here comes the heartache, the move out date, the excuses for my friends," the two sing in close harmony, lamenting a lover's departure while guitars swell in the background. Compare that song with "Vessels," a breakup tune that eschews inconsolability for bright key changes and high anthemic vocals, and you get the full spectrum of Walker's songwriting ability, which is as razor-sharp in 2008 as it's even been.