A few weeks ago, Arcade Fire keyboardist/drummer Will Butler shared an interesting, but ultimately inconsequential tidbit about his upcoming debut solo album: inspired by early Bob Dylan, Butler would write a song each day based on a headline in The Guardian. He allegedly culled the songs from a week’s worth of headlines – specifically the week of Feb. 23, 2015.
Given Dylan’s long, exemplar history of protest songs and storytelling, Butler may have set a bar of expectations that was all but impossible to attain. But Butler doesn’t even seem to be trying to write next “Hurricane” or “Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” (his purported inspiration behind the project). Rather, Policy – what became of that challenge – is a collection of eight breathtakingly concise pop songs that rarely sound political or even remotely literary. The whole affair clocks in at just past 26 minutes, barely eking past the standard maximum EP length of 25 minutes.
In typical side project fashion, Butler never strays too far from the material of his main band. He retains Arcade Fire’s frenetic vocal energy and jangly, post-punk informed indie rock, but strips away that group’s lush sound for straight-to-the-point pop. Also like AF, his influences are all over the place: “Anna” is ultra-catchy New Wave in the vein of Duran Duran; “What I Want” is paranoid garage psych-rock; “Sing To Me” and “Finish What I Started” are smarmy, stripped down piano ballads that ring of traditional pop. It doesn’t all completely work. His high-octave yelping on “Anna” is certainly worth a laugh, if not his rhythm-keeping “bum-bum-bum-bum bu-bu-bum-bum.” And the video: pure ’80s New Wave-y cheese.
But Butler seems more interested in having fun than delivering the news of yesterday with a straight face, and that makes even the weaker tracks work … more or less. It’s a surprisingly natural approach. After all, Arcade Fire has long had an air self-deprecation in all that pretentious self-seriousness (whether they know it or not); putting it right on display actually makes for good entertainment, if not always music.
At its best, Policy shows a side of Will Butler certainly worth examining. He turns political propaganda and nationalism inside out on “Take My Side,” sounding like an effervescent Thom Yorke as he poses a single terrifying question: “Are you gonna take my side? / Are you gonna be on my side or their side?” On “What I want” he evokes all the madman energy of Jack White or Matt Schultz, while “Something Coming” delivers Beckish funky weirdness that’s completely out of left field.
Still, a few pseudo-political lines withstanding, Policy just doesn’t stand on its own as protest or storytelling music. Neither does it come anywhere close to the ambition and grandeur of Arcade Fire. But as simple pop and rock songs that were recorded, mixed and released in only about two weeks, well, it’s not too shabby. It should be interesting to see what Butler might come up with for his next solo foray – given of course that he puts more time, care and artistic freedom into the project.