Best known as the Arcade Fire frontman and co-founder Win Butler’s little brother (well he is younger and shorter than Win who is 6”4”) who plays synthesizers, bass guitar, guitar, percussion, sitar, amongst other instruments; Will returns with his second solo LP. Five years may seem a long time since Will’s debut Policy, but Butler has not been idle; Will released Everything Now with Arcade Fire in 2017, earned a Public Policy Masters degree and spent time raising his three children.
In many respects listeners can expect Generations to be an evolution from his debut which Butler described “as a book of short stories”; in contrast Will assets that Generations is like a “novel”. One can’t help thinking that his Public Policy Master’s degree has influenced his writing as this 2020 release is Will asking himself “What’s my place in America’s present? … me as Will Butler, rich person, white person, Mormon, Yankee, parent, musician of some sort, I guess. What do I do? What can I do? The record asks that question over and over, even if it’s not much for answers.” In many respects, Will embarks on this journey alone by self-recording producing Generations in the basement of his own home in Brooklyn.
Generations opener “Outta Here” begins with distorted, unnerving Anima style EDM noises which sees Will sing about what he has had enough off before unexpectedly evolving into an impressive dance/disco anthem one would expect from Heaven 17, Scissor Sisters or Hurts. Butler’s vocals here can be compared to Jake Shear’s. This style of the record is repeated and evolved across “I Don’t Know What I Don’t Know” with more sudden key changes and an infectious and hypnotic raw, dramatic indie backdrop. The search for answers or “at least a way forward” is evident as Will sings “Who do I blame?”, “Teachers, preachers, birds and the trees”. Bearing an even closer resemblance with the LP opener, “Hard Times” benefits from additional bass and subtle industrial samples. One also sees Butler getting some partial answers to his questions: “Kill the rich. Salt the earth”.
Despite the distorted, sinister opening keys, “Close My Eyes” quickly becomes a jolly, happy go lucky Burt Freeman Bacharach/ Belle and Sebastian sounding tune with whistling and hallelujah handclaps to a song about being understood, choosing the right path and general difficulties about getting through life. Lead single “Surrender” builds upon the production of “Close My Eyes” with a full-on church choir, more passionate hand clapping as well as powerful piano and organs. “Surrender” is a beautiful lyrical oxymoron discussing moving on alongside halcyon memories along with pondering about not having “to build something new. The world doesn’t always need a new idea, it doesn’t always need a new personality. What can you do with whatever power and money you’ve got?”
The feel-good upbeat vibes continue on “Not Gonna Die” where Will lists the things he won’t die from as well as possible ways how and where he will die which range from dying in a hospital surrounded by his family, a heart attack or being killed by a refugee”. Will then pleads for suggestions of how he will face his death to stop as a large choir sings “quit saying that”. Despite the obvious unnerving faced by Will throughout this song; the great pounding drums, layering of guitars and saxophone leave you wanting to dance with an elated smile.
Playout track “Fine” both musically (with 1920’s prohibition sounding jazz and spooky aged sounding pianos) and lyrically transports one back in time. George Washington, Will’s Great, Great Grandparents as well as his own grandparents (banjo player Alvino Rey and Luise King, one of the King Sisters, a big band-era vocal group from a Mormon family in Utah) are mentioned. Butler also asks “If God was a douchebag”.
Across “Hide it Away” and “Promised” Butler uses almost teenage pop experimentation with synthetic drums and distorted keys singing “it’s just money and power – set them free” and “I’m gonna have to sit down with the sit-down types”. It is challenging to take Will’s ambitious LP seriously here; nonetheless, they do not detract from the thought-provoking lyrics across Generations as well as the plethora of emotions secreted from the soul whilst listening.
Will has always been an ideas man from “livening up gigs with his covers band, Citizens On Patrol, by pretending to be in a whale and sliding off the stage into the audience on his back” to creating sea shanties based on his paternal grandfather’s work as a boat builder to major as a poetry student at North-western University in Illinois. This has enabled Will to ensure this LP was a deft musical and lyrical melting pot without the need to reach out to Arcade Fire’s back catalogue.