It’s next to impossible to evaluate Will Butler’s solo debut, Policy, on its own merits. The stadium-sized behemoth incarnate in the room is Arcade Fire, the band in which he plays an ancillary role as a keyboardist/synth player and occasional drummer, overshadowed by the husband/wife duo of his older brother Win and Régine Chassagne. Yet Policy reveals the younger Butler to be something of the act’s secret weapon throughout his solo debut. Similar to the manner in which Mike Mills proved indispensable to R.E.M. due to his sheer versatility, Butler astounds in the breadth of his instrumental and songwriting dexterity.
The ebullience of “Anna” is evocative sleazy, barroom Stones, all honky-tonk piano, brass skronk, and deep groove, its detachedness conflating the grime of ’70s Taxi Driver-esque NYC street crime with ’10s Wall Street hucksters (“Hey little Anna / What’s gonna be the price we pay / Money, money, money”). “Anna” gives way to the scarred balladry of “Finish What I Started,” a distant cousin to Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day,” its melancholy piano ripples framing allusions to perfidy, while ultimately exuding an abject, deep-seeded regret.
Butler revisits these emotions on “Sing To Me,” with a threadbare, ascetic arrangement eerily floating above his disarming contrition. He confesses, “Sing to me / Cause I don’t want to talk no more,” inhabiting Plastic Ono Band levels of psychic pain while acknowledging the alchemical healing power of a great pop song. Yet it’s what’s not said that renders the song so affecting, the negative space hovering above elusively, like a knotty yet lucid dream that finishes only with loose ends.
But these tracks are the exception on Policy, as Butler largely plays it fast and ferociously. He strips away the lapidary of the Arcade Fire’s prime moments—and his own work with Owen Pallett on the Her soundtrack—in favor of a first thought/best thought edict. Whether it’s the gospel rave-up of “Witness”; the anthemic, nails-to-the-chalkboard Clash homage “Take My Side”; or the ambivalent doomsday clarion wail of “Something’s Coming,” Butler’s songs bristle with a spiky verve cribbed from the aforementioned greats and so many more (Devo, Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy, Talking Heads). Yet Butler strides confidently throughout his take on the great rock ’n’ roll songbook, confident in his wieldy powers where lesser artists would cower like a doe in headlights.
On the sweet rush of “What I Want,” Butler proffers with levity, “Tell me what you want babe and I will get it / Though might take three to five business days maybe longer / I forget cause my head’s in a bit of a haze,” belying the laser-focused alacrity at the core of this album. It’s pop as play, a document of American life that delves into morose topics endemic to wide-eyed self-awareness, but never wallows in them. This testament to rock as redemption remarkably leaves the baggage of Butler’s primary band at the door. He checks in, has one hell of a party, and promptly exits, making an indelible impression with an album that runs less than 30 minutes.
Policy is an auspicious album that hopefully augurs more efforts from perhaps the most underrated member of Arcade Fire. It’s likely that he’ll be graded on a curve by audience and critics alike due to his pedigree, which would be a shame. This is a terrific opening volley from a musician seemingly just beginning to tap an overflowing surfeit of songwriting riches.