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Wild one: Bernard Butler gets happy with his third solo album.
Tom Sheehan

Yes, Bernard Butler was once the guitarist for Brit-pop phenomenon Suede. But he's quick to point out that his quantity of work post-Suede is now larger than his output as a member. For Butler it's an irritating association, like constantly being reminded of who you were in high school. He knows he was fundamental in founding the band at the beginning of last decade, it's just that he'd rather concentrate on the present. Especially since coming into his own with his new solo effort, Friends & Lovers, a giant, rocking step away from Suede's mix of Bowie-glam and the gauzy, androgynous pop of the Smiths.

So Butler is ambivalent at best when talking about Suede, mainly because whatever he says, or doesn't say, can be too easily misconstrued.

"You kind of get into this dilemma of either, if you say you don't want to talk about it, then someone will write, 'Oh, he's got a problem with it,' and if you do want to talk about it, sometimes it gets out of hand or too involving and they say, 'All he wants to do is talk about it.' It's a no-win situation, so it does make it difficult for me," he says. "But in theory, it doesn't bother me at all. I can speak very positively about it; it's more a problem for other people."

Butler's positive outlook permeates his new record. In dealing with simplicities and grandeur of love and life, Friends & Lovers traffics in pop flights of fancy. The classic-rock-style mini-epics are generally upbeat, but the album runs the gamut of emotions via Butler's delicate voice and lush guitar phrasing. From the Up With People sentiments of "Smile" to the dark romanticism of "No Easy Way Out," every tune at least hints that everything's going to be all right. "Some days I might be feeling happy and I'll write something very deep and melancholy," he says. "I never really think to myself, 'Am I going to write something happy here, or sad?' I think you can work through all of these emotions within a song."

But the main emotion captured on Friends & Lovers is happiness. From the up-tempo power chords, organ and handclaps of "I'd Do It Again If I Could," to the bouncing beat and guitar textures of "What Happened to Me," it's a powerful record of hope. And why not -- he's proven himself a capable singer and songwriter, not just a hotshot guitarist. According to Butler, "I always viewed myself as a songwriter anyway. Even when I wasn't writing words [in Suede], I viewed that as writing songs. Whether you're using words or emotions, that's the same thing to me."

Though relatively unknown in America, Suede and Butler were and are huge in Britain. It's a level of celebrity that has put them under the microscope of the British press. As is their custom, the music papers built up the band and then took delight in tearing it down when Butler left the group in 1994.

Butler branched out -- working as a session guitarist, joining the Verve for a week, working as a duo with David McAlmont, and recording his solo debut, People Move On, in 1998. That year Butler performed a handful of well-received acoustic dates in America. On the last night of the tour, in Los Angeles, Butler became flustered by an overenthusiastic fan who had been disrupting the show all night. Understandably, Butler responded and the British tabloids played up the incident as a tantrum thrown by a self-important star. To hear Butler explain what happened is to understand how frustrating it can be to be at the eye of an ink-storm.

"It just happened that it seemed half the world was there -- or half the people who could write about me were there. It was really unfortunate. It was a shame because they spoiled my American tour in a small way by telling a lie, really. There was a guy who was really drunk and he was sitting in the front row. From the minute I walked onstage, he was screaming at me. It was so quiet that all you could hear was this guy. I mean, nice things, that's what was weird about it -- it wasn't heckling. He was screaming, 'You're a genius. You're wonderful.' Everyone was telling him shut up and stuff, and I started doing it. Then I got into this ridiculous conversation with him onstage and eventually they removed him; the bouncers came and lifted him out. Unfortunately, by the time it got home to England, everyone was writing about it as though just because I got one heckler I got all upset. It was just a bit of a difficult night and he kind of ruined the atmosphere, this guy."

Atmosphere has a lot to do with the enjoyment of Butler's music. By no means perfect, Friends & Lovers is nonetheless a buoyant ride with its grand pop ambitions out in the open, begging listeners to escape into the music. It's more about feeling and emotion than articulation, which adds to the isolating aspects of the music. The mellow, dreamy "Cocoon" even notes, "We've gotta learn to communicate/Get real, I will always be this way." And the upbeat "Let's Go Away" is all about protecting and nurturing a love by running from the outside world.

"I like escapism, I think you can find strength in that. A lot of why pop music is great is it's about fantasy and putting yourself inside other people's songs and inside of different ideas," says Butler. "Most of us do that a lot of the time: Whether we're sitting in the park or walking or going on holiday, especially if you live in the city, you spend a lot of your time planning how to get away, how to avoid stress, how to chill out, how to relax, when you can have a holiday, when you can see your friends, when you're going to be sociable. These are all escapisms, I don't mind that."

Ironically, the grandiose epic "Has Your Mind Got Away?" seems to indict too much escapism, when distractions make it impossible to reach a goal. From the classic, David Gilmour-esque guitar solo to the lush arrangement, it sounds like a psychedelic call to search and probe what makes life worth living. This kind of questioning, Butler believes, is paramount. And like his songs, Butler's ruminations can be a marathon length.

"We're going to have to start reevaluating all the things we learned, all the things we sped through at high speed," he says. "The '50s, '60s, '70s, you know, great music, great culture, and things going on that we just sped through at 90 miles an hour and didn't really blink. We're now going back and reevaluating, and it's almost like finding a new palette and spreading out all these colors and mixing them up.

"I think that's happening in all areas of culture. That's why people panic about, 'The guitar is dead and electronica is the way forward,' and stuff like this. We've got to get used to the idea that progression is not about a singular instrument or a physical thing; it's very much a logical thing and a spiritual thing. We can't keep relying on physical instruments to take us to different places, it's all about emotions, and it's all about where certain things began."

Bernard Butler's Friends & Lovers is being released this week from Creation/Columbia Records.


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