Will Butler + Sister Squares Stake Their Claim on Their Self-Titled Record

BY Alan RantaPublished Sep 22, 2023

Life is a constant stream of shit, but sometimes getting beaten down can lead to a hot streak. Food, flowers, and psychedelics flourish where shit falls, and so does creativity. Though you may have to wait awhile and sift through a lot of it, there can be beauty in the dirt. Will Butler has been through some shit, and his self-titled full-length with Sister Squares is, indeed, good shit.

Butler had a couple of solo albums under his belt before this eponymous release, both for Merge. Recorded in Jimi Hendrix's old living room, Butler's 2015 solo debut Policy had a cinematic lo-fi psych rawness tempered by indie piano balladry. "Take My Side" could easily be a King Khan & BBQ Show B-side, while the apocalyptic funk of "Something's Coming" bleeding into the paranoid art-rock of "What I Want" struck a spark rarely ignited on most Arcade Fire-related projects.

Importantly, Butler used his solo work to create some distance from Arcade Fire. Eventually he pulled the plug completely, announcing his departure from the band about five months before the allegations about older brother Win's sexual misconduct began to surface. The younger Butler didn't say why, but he hadn't recorded with them since completing the sessions for their sixth album, 2022's WE.

Regardless, Will had been stepping out from his brother's shadow for years before that shit hit the fan. Policy was specifically touted as being American music, indebted to the likes of the Violent Femmes, the Breeders and the Magnetic Fields, while 2020's Generations leaned more into the '80s sheen of Cars-esque synth-pop, further demonstrating his distinct skills. It polished his dynamic art-rock introspection while pushing the alternative doom-dance aspect into LCD Soundsystem territory on tracks like "When I'm With You," "Not Gonna Die" and "Promises."

When the time came to make Will's first album untethered by his former band, he intended to make a weird bedroom pop album. He set out to produce a man-in-a-basement-alone-with-his-ideas sort of thing, until he realized he actually wanted to have the opposite experience, and reached out to his usual suspects. Forming his own collective of sorts, Sister Squares are made up of sisters Jenny and Julie Shore, along with Miles Francis Arntzen and Sara Dobbs. Will met Jenny the year before he hooked up with Arcade Fire, when he auditioned as a dancer for her in college. He didn't get the part, but he did marry her in 2007.

Among other things, Arntzen helped engineer, produce, and arrange strings on Will Butler + Sister Squares, while Jenny, Sara, and Julie have seemingly taken on greater creative roles with each subsequent release. It makes sense this crazy horse finally has a name. The sisters take the lead on the smouldering industrial pop track "Me & My Friends," and it's one of the most haunting and cinematic compositions on the album. As they drift off, seemingly tormented by a night that will never end, the track seamlessly transitions into "Saturday Night," with its opening line, "Oh-oh, it's Saturday night / I lost the time, I lost half of my mind." That transition is one of many touches that make this album feel like such an achievement.

A captivating journey from start to finish, the album opens with the understated "Open." It's a quietly optimistic introductory interlude that blends into "Stop Talking" so fluidly as to essentially be one track. The plaintive piano ballad "Car Crash" is fragile and broken, yet quietly triumphant — its sad little piano chords nakedly warble away beneath Butler's soul-searching vocals, a synth drone drifting in and swelling to a chorus of voices echoing, "You've got to see to believe it / But then you can't unsee it." If you listen closely enough, you can hear a piece of your soul escaping.

"Arrow of Time" starts off like one of U.S. Girls' haunting art-pop concoctions, but when it hits the chorus with its nervous line of "I've been patient I've been very still / Watching as I'm trying not to feel," it launches into the kind of manic hard psych MGMT nailed with "Brian Eno" from Congratulations.

"I Am Standing In a Room" seems like a version of Alvin Lucifer's sound art piece "I Am Standing In a Room" if reimagined by Bright Eyes. As a disembodied narrator discusses his predicament, stuck in a room-less void in 1999, he implores the person playing manic piano in another timeline to change what he's playing, but no matter how many times you listen to the song, he never gets through. It's the musical equivalent of that notable moment in Grant Morrison's run on the Animal Man comic, where the titular character takes peyote, realizes he is a fictional character, and turns around to see you, the reader, watching him through the fourth wall. 

Lyrically referencing the Talking Heads' "Once in a Lifetime," "Hee Loop" has an odd choir effect going with all the droning, distorted voices percolating behind him. Chopin-based closer "The Window" whines along as if Butler is playing piano at the end of time, the prickly dissonance devolving into the moment after the sirens stop wailing in the cursed town of Silent Hill.

A record that demands to danced along to and spun into infinity, the self-titled debut by Will Butler + Sister Squares gets better with each replay. There are always new details to be found.
(Merge Records)

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