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Good Grief (355 Recordings)

THIS IS A VERY GOOD record and, fairly or unfairly, very overdue.

If it seems like only yesterday, or maybe the day before yesterday, that Bernard Butler released his second album, well, you’re either on drugs or, like me, you’ve never really stopped playing either of those two records he put out sometime after leaving Suede, People Move On and Friends And Lovers. Two records which blended rock of an early ‘70s nature, a kind of grand gesture soul buried just beneath, and the shadow of ‘80s guitar pop.

In truth it has been 25 years between Friends And Lovers and this, album #3, Good Grief. Which is a fair length of time, though no one could accuse Butler of wasting the time given a slate of productions that elevated all who hired him (think of Duffy for one), collaborations with Catherine Anne Davies, Jessie Buckley and Suede’s Brett Anderson, to name but a few, and more hired-hand gigs as a superior, flexible and multi-faceted guitarist than there is space for here.

Not surprisingly, that experience is reflected in Good Grief. First of all, vocally, where Butler’s voice is much firmer, more controlled and capable of more expression and subtlety. There’s a bit of huskiness and a slight tremble when he reaches, a steadiness underfoot and a comfortable openness.

He sounds like what he is, a man in his 50s who has done a bit, snuck by a fair bit, and wasn’t crushed. A man who can remember that “at 17 I was living the dream”, though it turned out to be “killing me”, a man now who might confess that these days  “I always feel I am in decline”, and yet not really regret or envy either. Sanguine? Yeah, maybe that’s what it is.

Not that regrets don’t flavour this mixture; he’s got a few – see above reference to a man in his 50s. Up for discussion are sometimes fractious parent-child relationships, past loves and current arrangements, and a few professional relationships. Butler trails just enough moments of intimacy to suggest these experiences might be close to home but they are couched obliquely enough – or if you are less generous, you could say phrased in familiar expressions that tiptoe on the edge of clichés – to keep them at just enough distance to protect the parties. Another skill that comes from experience.

That this record is not made by a twentysomething is probably most obvious in the fact that in tempo and tone Good Grief exudes not so much a world weariness as a world wryness, an approach that has its perfect reflection in the prickly but yet understanding, hurt but yet accepting Preaching To The Choir.

The relaxed, slightly bent lead guitar of Clean sits on beds of acoustics and no drums, the frilled shirt tuxedo backing vocals just leaning in; the trumpet in Camber Sands soaks in, letting a Bowie glam era-ballad build itself gradually; Pretty D’s final dance of the night feel allows for a solid guitar to rise up alongside oohs and aahs, and there is energy here, but no one is running away.

At the theoretical other end of the spectrum, London Snow with its grandeur of strings, choir and drawn-out melody, has echoes of Butler’s Big Soul collaboration with David McAlmont, and hints that it might let itself go. Similarly, Deep Emotions brings together American country, low horizon European drama and hints of English theatricality and seems poised for a flourish. And Living The Dream swells with strings, whistling and a brisk energy is wide and open, ready to fly. But that’s not how Butler rolls.

If you’re looking for companions as much as antecedents for this album, I’d suggest mid-‘70s David Bowie and Roxy Music accompanied by some pastis. Knowing, not bitter; elegant, not showy; wistful, not resigned.






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