Loosely focused on reliving some of the rowdier days of his youth, Butch Walker drenches The Spade in nostalgia. But rather than coming up with a self-serious meditation on approaching middle age, Walker brings a reckless, freewheeling tone to the album, making each tale of a bar fight, casual hookup, or one who got away sound more like a summertime radio anthem than a wistful reminiscence. “Bodegas and Blood” kicks off the album with some crunchy, distorted electric guitar riffs and a sing-along melody, as Walker gives voice to a cast of unfortunates who came of age in the mid ‘80s. From the first track, The Spade finds the Black Widows, Walker’s backing band, having developed into a more natural sounding band since recording I Liked It Better When You Had No Heart, and their contributions to standouts “Day Drunk” and “Dublin Crow” give the album a full-bodied, hefty punch.
Still, it’s Walker’s impossibly catchy melodies and ability to structure a hook that are the album’s strongest selling points. To that end, “Summer of ‘89” is one of the year’s best singles, tapping into the same vein of nostalgia as Bryan Adams’s immortal radio staple “Summer of ‘69” at the same time it takes the piss out of that single (Walker actually sings, “And nobody knew Bryan Adams wasn’t cool/The TV just told me he was,” during the second verse). The song builds to a hysterical climax as Walker repeatedly shouts, “But where do I come?,” with increasing panic as he sings of wanting to go back to the days when he was “a winner.” He’s less boastful on “Suckerpunch,” a slice of sweaty, raucous bar rock that recounts a fight that Walker didn’t win, but the melody is no less catchy, with thundering percussion and a slick little blues riff driving the arrangement.
Even when the album’s songwriting isn’t as sharp as it could be (as on “Every Single Body Else,” which the Black Widows’ Michael Trent and Chris Unck wrote, or the honky-tonk ballad “Closest Thing to You I’m Gonna Find,” which is one of Walker’s solo writing credits), The Spade is still an engaging listen. What’s most interesting about the album is that its narratives scan as Americana in the literary sense of that term, but Walker thankfully avoids any trappings of contemporary Americana music. The Spade is a riotous album that recalls ‘80s-era Springsteen and Mellencamp, and Walker is smart enough to know not to take any of it too seriously.