Perhaps it was inevitable that Ryan Adams and Butch Walker would eventually cross paths and strike up a creative partnership. Both men are prolific road warriors and musical chameleons, and each also successfully navigates the tightrope between songwriting and production. In fact, Walker’s Adams-produced 2015 solo album, Afraid Of Ghosts, on which he excavates and grapples with the grief caused by his beloved father passing away, ranks among the best of his releases.
Adams again has a presence on Walker’s latest, Stay Gold: He’s credited with “guitar, piano, vision, and overall album concept co-conspirator.” However, the record is an upbeat affair that’s more preoccupied with roads not taken—and the people encountered along the way—than emotional catharsis. That leads to vivid romantic remembrances: the post–one-night stand “Can We Just Not Talk About Last Night,” or the weepy “Spark:Lost,” a song on which the protagonist laments a busted relationship where he’s losing not only a partner, but her dad. “East Coast Girl” and the title track are sympathetic profiles of hard-luck characters with hearts of gold, although better still is the smoldering “Descending”: The sparse, piano-driven country duet with Ashley Monroe examines the uncertainty of a relationship on unsteady ground.
The latter song’s bare-bones arrangements are a rarity on Stay Gold. Sonically, the album is an often-jubilant nod to Walker’s beloved classic rock. Colorful horns and taut, soul-flecked grooves give “Mexican Coke” a ’70s-Chicago feel; the flushed, fiddle-laced “Irish Exit” and the accordion-driven “Wilder In The Heart” boast a distinct, E Street Band barnstorming vibe; and there’s a defiant, Gaslight Anthem/Springsteen guitar-hero influence on the fist-pumping “East Coast Girl” and “Ludlow Expectations.” On the latter song, Suzanne Santo of the band HoneyHoney matches Walker’s muscular vocals with her own powerful, hopeful hollers—a feat she repeats throughout Stay Gold, which elevates the record.
However, the album is most compelling when Walker attempts to figure out how the shoulda-beens or close calls haunting his life fit into the present day. “Wilder In The Heart” nails the ache of realizing youthful passion has given way to aged ennui, through the lens of both romance and music (“When my favorite band still wrote songs I liked / I can’t relate to them anymore”). The whispered, acoustic “Record Store,” which also features Santo shading Walker’s main vocal melody, recounts a meeting with an ex who’s been weathered by life and stardom. Even as he longs for the ability to turn back the clock and have a do-over, there’s a palpable sense of finality, and the realization that she’s the one that got away. The clarity with which Stay Gold captures these light-bulb moments gives the album deep, satisfying resonance.