Bernard Butler - People Move On

NOW THE '70S ARE BACK AND ALL the rage, it may be as well to recall a character from that era, a taciturn guitar mercenary who hired himself out fairly anonymously to myriad records before his debut solo project propelled him into the spotlight. When 'Tubular Bells' made Mike Oldfield a superstar and fledgling label boss Richard Branson a millionaire, the effect was devastating. Virtually overnight Oldfield, under the influence of a psychiatric process called exegesis, was transformed from a sensitive artist in flares to a tank-topped, bird-ogling, beer-swilling Ÿber-bloke. It was scary to see the way he wore his new-found supernatural normality like armour, he was so desperate to belong. His was the unhappiest happiness anyone ever saw.

There is something of Mike Oldfield about Bernard Butler's debut solo album and not just because both are extraordinary guitarists. The foppish Butler hasn't discovered the Shaun Ryder within or anything crazy like that, it's just that there is something unsettling and intensely unnatural about the way the shy, sensitive Butler is suddenly so happy to lay his life bare before us with such bright abandon. Maybe the man has just found true contentment but there is an element lurking within the pages of this diary - which is what 'People Move On' really amounts to - which suggests an accident waiting to happen. Something just ain't right.

On the surface, these songs seem straightforward accounts of quitting Suede, being frustrated with other projects for a couple of years, having a baby and finding oneself. Fair enough. But somehow Butler's shining exorcism just doesn't wash. It sounds too good to be true, like something he had to do. It may seem a tiny point of semantics but the baroque nature of his new calm betrays the vast psychological gulf between wishing to do something and needing to do it.

Maybe it's the shock of discovering that he has a voice beneath that fringe - Butler was always an unwilling interviewee and never sang with Suede. Hearing the easy way he unfurls these songs is a bit like watching the traumatised kid in The Tin Drum suddenly discover vocal expression but, instead of a primal scream, he delivers a drawl so easy and carefree you feel there must be something sinister in it, held back, hidden, waiting to crack.

The classical structure of the songs is suspect too - the way 'Stay' builds so deliberately and obviously into an epic, the way the title track unfolds just how we know it will with absolutely no surprises - that suggests emotional camouflage. Butler relies on a lot of heroes on this record. He does his 'Cinnamon Girl' Neil Young thing marvellously well on 'You Just Know', he does his Nick Drake thing miraculously well on 'You Light The Fire', he does his Fleetwood Mac-meets-'Dark Side Of The Moon' Floyd thing with casual aplomb on 'Woman I Know' and he does his super-realist Motown thing superbly on 'Not Alone' - and the fascinating thing is that they all achieve what may well be the opposite effect of their intention. In reproducing these styles so well, Butler seems to be asking us to concentrate on his musical expertise when what the listener is really forced to ask is why/what is he hiding? The lyrics are telling us one thing - I've been through it but I'm OK, honest - and the songs themselves are telling us something else - I just don't know what to do with myself. And it's this tension that makes 'People Move On' a far deeper record than it might at first appear.

In other words, just because he's found a voice and the words to go with it doesn't necessarily mean those words are telling the full story. The lyrics - and the title - of 'People Move On' are suspiciously obvious and self-explanatory. But Bernard Butler has relied on his guitar to express himself up until this point and it's his guitar that still betrays his intent with a deeper honesty. There is hardly an occasion on 'People Move On' when the guitar doesn't say something different to the words. Whether it's the absurdly Grand Guignol climax to the creepy 'Autograph' or the way the big solos in 'When You Grow' transform a song from a father to a child as moving and sentimental as Spencer Tracy reassuring Elizabeth Taylor over midnight milk in the kitchen in Father Of The Bride into a grandstanding epic up there with Frankie Goes To Hollywood's 'The Power Of Love', Bernard Butler's weakness for melodrama is hearteningly disturbing. This is the genius we remember from Suede, a drama queen on a par with the arse-slapping Brett, a talent unable to resist the temptation to over-elaborate, to take the normal and aggrandise it into something immortal, something freakish, something dissatisfied.

People may well move on but old habits die hard and old neuroses die harder.


Steve Sutherland