Policy - in many ways - sums up Will Butler. For those unfamiliar with the virtuosic multi-instrumentalist and brilliantly bizarre showman, Butler is a core member of Arcade Fire. Whilst his brother Win stands at the front, yelping his heart out about the state out of the human condition, Will can be seen strutting along the background, furiously walloping a drum and several of his bandmates, or stood behind a keyboard, performing a series of odd dance moves or staring deadpan at the guitarist, doing nothing but periodically taking his coat on and off for the entire duration of a song. Will is the crucial oddball cog of the Arcade Fire machine.
Fittingly, Policy is a disjointed, impulsive, messy and (most importantly) fun album. All this Arcade Fire talk can be misleading. Arcade Fire albums are statements; meticulously arranged and produced with the concepts, symbolism and themes laboured over to create some cohesive whole. Will’s solo work is consistently lo fi, with the vocals often sounding as if they were recorded in one take and a number of guitar mis-scratches left in. It also lacks much cohesion, with no discernible lyrical theme and styles ranging from gospel to punk to dancehall.
This is not to play down Will’s musical talents (he was nominated for an Oscar for best original score for God’s sake). There is a wide range of instrumentation which sits sporadically, but comfortably upon skeletal songs. The spiky, early synth pop inspired Anna is punctuated with clattering, dissonant pianos and jazzy horns, whilst the fluttering woodwind of Sing elevate it from merely pleasant to an uncharacteristically beautiful moment. An element of Will’s arrangement which stands out across the entire album is the female backing harmonies, which sound sublime in a number of songs, most notably Son of God and the explosive closer, Witness.
Lyrically, there isn’t an awful lot to read into here; Will’s musings on love and inadequacy seem more of the purpose of fitting the mood of the song than expressing anything profound or poetic. However, his irreverent character is often matched in his words in ways that will have you guffawing at your browser. Particular highlights include “If I could fly, I’d beat the shit out of some birds” and his declaration that he’ll buy a girl a pony and that furthermore, he knows a great recipe for “pony macaroni”. His vocal performance is also versatile and extremely enjoyable, sounding at one moment raspy and unhinged and the next breathy and sinister.
It’s difficult to ignore this album’s flaws. For starters, it’s only 8 tracks long, with each track averaging at about 3:30, meaning it plays out more like a long EP. On top of that, while none of the songs are bad, not all hit the mark in the way they need to to make such a short album work. Something’s Coming, whilst sonically interesting, is fairly directionless and Finish What I Started and What I Want are a little bland, though the latter can be pardoned because of its excellent lyricism. Policy will be criticised for being derivative. Though it seamlessly and successfully integrates a number of influences far better than many contemporary artists could any particular one, I wouldn’t bat an eye lash if I heard Sing on a Lennon album or Take My Side on a Violent Femmes LP. I’m sure many people will see this as an inconsequential bit of time off from where his real value lies. But honestly, the amount of fun he’s having bleeds through so completely, that it’s hard not to just have fun with him.
Words: Rob Paterson