Policy, the debut solo record by Will Butler, a co-founding member of a band you may have heard of called Arcade Fire, is a freewheeling mash-up of different styles that is done and dusted within half an hour. That should be unsurprising to anyone who has had the pleasure of watching him play onstage with reckless abandon, switching from keyboards and synths to xylophones and guitars with palpable energy. In many ways, he personally embodies the euphoria that emanates from their music.
If there’s one thing that his recent ‘song-a-day’ experiment with The Guardian showed, it’s that there are ideas just pouring out of his head. Yet it’s only recently that he’s had the urge to pursue his own material. Butler’s work on the Oscar-nominated soundtrack for Her, alongside Owen Pallett and the rest of Arcade Fire, gave him the kick to write more material on his own. As the Reflektor tour began to wind down, he booked time at Electric Lady Studios in New York to flesh out ideas that he’d been toying with for a while. In the space of one week (and with some help from Arcade Fire drummer Jeremy Gara), he transformed those ideas into songs that he has dubbed “American music”.
As it happens, what he defines as “American music” is quite wide-ranging. Policy conveys a whole bunch of different moods and, on first listen, is an unpredictable beast. The first half alone goes from straightforward rock to brass-infused electro-pop before bring the mood down with sparse piano balladry and then perking up for a rousing acoustic singalong. It’s fair to say that there isn’t a trace of hesitancy to be found in Butler’s songwriting – he’s making songs without thinking too much about whether or not it makes for a cohesive whole.
Despite this scattergun approach, it doesn’t make for a particularly challenging listen. Infectious hooks and melodies are hardly in short supply, especially in the gospel-tinged tunes Son Of God and Witness. Anna, a highly enjoyable synth-led number that contains lively bursts of jazzy brass and frenetic piano. There is also a lot of no-nonsense rock ‘n’ roll; best of all is opener Take My Side recalls the glory days of early-’00s garage rock revival, complete with scrappy production and punchy guitar chords. By contrast, What I Want feels a little more serviceable, even though it has an amazingly absurd lyric about pony macaroni. The only thing that is forgettable is the downbeat Sing To Me, which is a bit too maudlin for its own good.
Policy is a little inconsistent at times, with a couple of missteps, but it’s far from a failure. This is a record made with a heavy DIY ethic that is about as erratic as you’d expect from Butler. There’s something charming about how the album is quite happy to change direction on a whim; rapidly going from one place to another, he shows off as many skills and talents as he can in a short space of time. In sum, there’s enough varied, interesting and accessible material here to make Butler’s sonic manifesto worth paying attention to.