Bernard Butler

People Move On


By John Dugan

It’s a wet night in March 1992 at Central London Polytechnic and I’m clutching a subsidized pint. The hip crowd has paid little, but hopes to hear something extraordinary. Simon, a semipro cricketer and sometime driver for the headliner, has tipped me off: this is a gig not to be missed. He’s doing sound tonight for his pals. They call themselves Suede. They launch into “The Drowners,” which the British music press will later hold up as a masterwork. It isn’t, but it is a hooky amalgam of the tragedy of Morrissey and the brash androgyny of Ziggy Stardust. Unfortunately for Simon, myself, and the assembled multitude, two songs later the band is brashly, tragically out of tune. Bernard Butler, the pimple-faced, longhaired, high-kicking, rayon-clad guitarist, has no electric tuner and makes minimal effort between songs to get it together. It’s a memorably bad show. But in the ensuing weeks Suede’s star rises, and the next few shows, nearly flawless, are packed. For three years they’re one of the biggest bands in the UK.

In 1994, as Suede was finishing its second LP, Dog Man Star, Butler quit. The band scrambled to fill his shoes with a young disciple, Richard Oakes, and Butler went on to collaborate with Neneh Cherry, Edwyn Collins, and others. He scored hits at home with a soul singer named David McAlmont. After flirting with joining the Verve, he set out on his own and started–like the prince in the tower in Monty Python and the Holy Grail–to siiiing!

This Wednesday he comes to the Double Door in support of his brand-new solo album, People Move On. Butler’s gone solo as a studied 70s revisionist. He sings and plays all but the drums, saxophones, and violins. It’s happened before and it’ll happen again: upstart becomes star, then turns singer-songwriter to reflect on it all. But it’s happened to Butler over the course of a mere six years. People Move On bears some resemblance to George Harrison’s sprawling All Things Must Pass, in its syllables, earthy tones, weariness, spiritual themes, and celebrations of the joys of heavy-duty monogamy. Butler has lost a father, gained a kid, come down from a decadent rock-star trip, and landed on stable, honest ground. He’s miles away now from Suede’s flamboyant, gender-muddled Camdentown melodramas.

But where is he? Butler’s debut has a contemplative, triumphant feel with incredible vintage sounds and textures to match. Unlike the mystical Beatle, Butler doesn’t chant raga; he constructs grand orchestrated symphonies around the guitar. Here and there he steps into the shoes of his icons: he does Nick Drake on “You Light the Fire” and Phil Spector on “Not Alone,” the obvious single. It’s a cathartic, driving little pop epic that belongs on some dusty collector’s 45. And the huge guitar stomper “You Just Know” is more than a little Vervy–Butler’s a genius with guitar sounds, and here his six-string prowess threatens to steal the show. On the title track, however, his failings come into focus. “Throw your staff down from the citadel and run away,” he sings, but he’s merely run from one citadel to another.

Besides being a guitar whiz, Butler also turns out to be a skillful producer and a more-than-adequate singer. Just for that you have to take him seriously. But he’s grown up predictably, nailing all the hallmarks of the serious solo artist along the way: piano and strings, soulful vocals, the universal themes of love, life, and loss–bang, bang, bang. People Move On is more an awe-inspiring exercise than the true liberation of a rock ‘n’ roll wonder worker, and the growing and learning stuff wears thin fast, rendering the major-league production touches schmaltzy. The 27-year-old doesn’t yet have a song in him that’s as delicately complex as, say, Big Star’s “Nighttime”; his journey hasn’t led him anywhere new or special. He’s just hopped off the bus somewhere in singer-songwriter land. People Move On is disturbingly in line with tradition. Why must history repeat itself this way, and why is a talent like Bernard Butler in such a rush to let it? o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): album cover.