Rayland Baxter was the only person who could harness the multitude of sonic pleasures on his latest, self-produced release If I Were a Butterfly. The predictably unpredictable Baxter holed up alone in an old rubber band factory in Kentucky for a year to work on Butterfly, studying the sights and sounds around him, allowing them to sink in and inform his songwriting output. This kind of surrender to the creative process of making a new record is what keeps fans of the quirky Baxter on their toes, and it’s what makes this latest set of songs buzz with possibility. Exploring elements of hip-hop, psych-pop, and thrashing rock, Baxter is as bendy and elastic as the rubber bands insulating the factory’s studio.
Adventurous as it is, at the core of If I Were a Butterfly is Baxter’s vivid storytelling. In early 2020 he lost his father, Bucky Baxter, an accomplished musician in his own right, and these songs are soaked in nostalgia and admiration, and the deep anxieties that keep him up at night. Nowhere more so than on the soulful piano-pounder “Tadpole,” which plays like a beautifully weathered photo album of snapshots from Baxter’s coming of age. Audio clips of Baxter as a young child are peppered throughout like little treasures to find if you’re listening closely. Bucky’s pedal steel makes a few blessed appearances, too.
Where Baxter plays with vocal distortion and reverb on the album’s rollicking first third, on songs like the cheeky kiss-off “Billy Goat” and uber catchy Beatles-esque “Rubberband Man,” about halfway through he comes in more clearly on the dreamy standout “Graffiti Street,” the horn-tinged groove “Dirty Knees,” and the powerfully bare ballad “My Argentina.” Baxter has the vocal gift of being able to convey the sort of pained longing left in the wake of monumental grief, and he uses it especially well here. Though If I Were a Butterfly is marked by his significant loss, Baxter has never sounded more alive.
Rayland Baxter’s If I Were a Butterfly is out Nov. 4 on ATO Records.