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Butch Walker explores grief, loss in the introspective ‘Afraid of Ghosts’

Butch Walker’s resume is vast and impressive.

He has produced scores of albums by a wide range of artists: Keith Urban, Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, Pink, Gavin DeGraw, Weezer, Sevendust. He has written dozens of songs that have been recorded by other singers and songwriters, including Dashboard Confessional, Hot Hot Heat, Avril Lavigne and Fall Out Boy.

His own discography includes three albums by Marvelous 3, a band he founded in Atlanta in 1997 (its big hit was “Freak of the Week”), plus seven studio albums, including “Afraid of Ghosts,” officially released Tuesday. “Ghosts” is the follow-up to “The Spade,” an album filled with catchy rock anthems about episodes and anecdotes from his past.

“Ghosts” is a more introspective and wistful endeavor. Recorded in four days at the studio of Ryan Adams, who produced, it explores death, loss, grief, regret and other matters of the heart, all inspired by the death of Walker’s father about a year before.

The production recalls “Ashes & Fire,” the album Adams released in 2011. The mood is heavy and wistful; many arrangements are spare. The title track opens the album austerely. Over a lightly strummed guitar and occasional piano chords, Walker confesses: “I’m coming to terms with a ghost / Learning to deal / I’m gonna take what scares me the most / And turn it into something real.”

Enter an accordion and some light percussion, and he tells a story about a weekly trip to hospice, where he sits “in traffic thicker than blood” so he can “try to know a man that I never really knew.” If his father is that man, it isn’t explicitly evident. The song turns to a third-person perspective of a woman reeling in loneliness and loss who is also coming to terms with her past.

Much of “Ghosts” deals with loss in general. “Chrissie Hynde” is an exercise in nostalgia, the singer remembering a time through sepia-toned glasses: “All I got right now / Is all I want / Chrissie Hynde singing through / A blown dash speaker / About Ohio / All she wants right now / Is to be the way it was / The same as when you and me were one.”

“How Are Things, Love?” is more direct lyrically, a slow-moving epilogue for a failed romance. Set to a low-pulse guitar riff and peals of a steel guitar (or a clavioline?), Walker sings longingly to the one who broke his heart: “How are things, love / Is the new guy everything, love? / Does it feel like you’re in chains, love?” Then: “I hope you’re well / Do you ever think of me, love?”

“21+” sounds like a Bruce Springsteen song from somewhere between “Nebraska” and “Tunnel of Love.” It’s a tale of a guy who became a husband and father too soon and yearns for his lost youth: “I’m gonna get out of a town that drowns everything I love / Come hell or high water / Gonna leave here when I’m sober / I don’t want to be 21 and over.”

Not every song resonates. “I Love You” is a ditty that could use more lyrical heft. “Bed on Fire” is a swerve into sex and lust that veers wide of its mark. It ends in a firestorm of guitars, one of the album’s rare moments of dissonance.

Walker and Adams bring “Ghosts” to a satisfying conclusion. “Father’s Day” is a eulogy, an elegy and a reckoning.

“It’s Sunday morning, Father’s Day / The first without my dad / I look into my little boy’s eyes / It takes all I have / Not to break right down in front of him / While he smiles at me / You don’t become a man / Till you lose your dad, you see.” Then: “Where do I go / Without you, heaven only knows.”

He closes with “The Dark,” a recollection of a ride on a motorcycle that lost its mirror: “Don’t wanna look back.” If he’s not looking back, he’s not fleeing anything either. Rather, he’s forging onward into the unknown, but not alone: “Ain’t running from nothing / Nothing on my mind / Into the dark with my father at my side.”

To reach Timothy Finn, call 816-234-4781 or send email to tfinn@kcstar.com. Follow the Back to Rockville blog on Twitter @kcstarrockville.

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