When John Butler came through with ‘Home’, the lead single and title track of his band's seventh studio album, it seemed to indicate that radical changes were afoot in the acclaimed musician’s world.
Wailing synths, skittering beats inspired by trap music, and dark, thundering tom parts – ‘Home’ is worlds away from the foot-stomping twang of 2014’s Flesh & Blood, or most of the blindingly successful catalogue that’s made John Butler Trio one of the highest selling independent artists ever.
If the idea of a whole album blending rootsy folk and blues with EDM seems like sacrilege, you can breathe a sigh of relief. That’s not what Home is, or necessarily what Butler was even trying to achieve. It’s less a clean reboot than a refreshing revamp, fusing more modern sounds and production techniques to the group’s familiar, earthy sound.
Though produced by Jan Skubiszewski and accompanied by his trusty Trio, bassist Byron Luiters and drummer Grant Gerathy, Butler actually wrote parts of Home in solitude, using a laptop or iPad to fashion entrancing beats and electronics to underpin his primary weapon of choice: finger-picked guitar.
Even as synths growl below and strings float above on ‘Tell Me Why’, the focus is still Butler’s fleet plucking. Ditto the dramatic ‘Brown Eyed Bird’, where programmed beats and soft-focus guitar squalls burst into a bluesy singalong refrain, while the dramatic ‘We Want More’ frames the fretwork fireworks with electronic atmosphere.
More importantly, these new elements never distract JBT from their inherent vitality or knack for a strong hook.
The songs that push their sound the furthest all come later in the tracklist, and the record does a great job of easing the listener into these progressive styles and sounds.
Opener ‘Tahitian Blue’ builds upon a comforting, rustic flavoured groove and ‘Wade In The Water’ is a big, electric blues belter, the frontman stretching his phrases into a towering plea: ‘I hope you find me/’Cause I need some redemption’.
That lyric also signposts the personal demons Butler sought to purge with this record. Home is the sound of a musical nomad working through intense emotions, confronting the fact that all the ARIAs, album sales, and sold out signs in the world couldn’t shield him from the exhaustion of the relentless touring and political activism so central to his career.
The guilt of leaving his family for long stretches at a time and unchecked anxieties colour the darker tones of the record, as Butler sings about broken machinery and disillusionment, the need to be anchored and centred.
The meditative refrains of ‘Running Away’ and ‘You Don’t Have To Be Angry Anymore’ are particularly revealing, and the porchside strum and slide guitars of ‘Coffee, Methadone & Cigarettes’ soften the blow of a song tinted by intergenerational trauma.
The tyranny of distance is written all over ‘Miss Your Love’, and ‘Just Call’ - a song 13 years in the making – is a heartfelt dedication to Butler’s wife (Danielle Caruana of Mama Kin) for tethering him through the stormy conflict between his inner and outer worlds.
Crucially, Butler has weathered the tempest and made it safely to port. Home is as much about the joy of deliverance as it is turmoil, of achieving peace of mind through love and, when it’s called for, a big old festival-friendly acoustic throwdown.
Home is an accomplishment for refurbishing John Butler Trio’s sound with enough fresh ideas to open them up to a new audience without alienating their dedicated followers.
More significantly, Butler himself has transformed his struggles into his strongest set of songs since 2004’s Sunrise Over Sea.