On his debut album, 1998's People Move On, erstwhile London Suede guitarist Bernard Butler created an ethereal, contemplative one-man show of gadgetry and gimmickry. He embraced the Britpop of his former band while adding a bit of self-indulgent singer-songwriter material to the mix. In other words, it was pretty much what one expected of a solo turn from a guitar player (Butler actually enjoys cult status as one of modern rock's greatest axemen).
Its follow-up, the more worldly Friends & Lovers, is burdened with neither expectations nor grandiose heavy-handedness; its humble approach to the timeworn tricks of the singer-songwriter makes it both more accessible and tuneful. It also doesn't hurt that Butler has enlisted a band to work with him this time around. And even if it doesn't display much individuality, it does give Butler's songs the added boost they often need. Like his ex-cohorts in Suede, his new band is the power vessel for his inner, thoughtful machinations. Butler's voice -- as unassuming as Suede's Brett Anderson's fey glam twists were a post-ironic put-on -- never tries to do more with the songs than they deserve. The sweet "No Easy Way Out," for example, teeters on the edge of '70s contemplative singer-songwriters. Strumming acoustic guitars and rolling piano fills mesh discreetly among Butler's hushed tones and reserve; it's Elton John doing some California dreaming, Watergate-era style. Other times Butler just cranks up the amps and slips into social sloganeering ("You Must Go On").
If Friends & Lovers has one consistent flaw, it's Butler's push to deliver it to its predestined place in the CD bins. It almost follows the set rule for sophomore efforts: After the introspective exorcism of the debut comes the return to familiar terrain (next up, the fame-questioning personal piece). "I'd Do It Again if I Could" and the title tune are generic rockers, likable but instantly forgettable, which pretty much sums up Friends & Lovers. London Suede at their most proficient (like on the Stay Together EP) turned rock and roll inside out, toying with its principles -- gender and otherwise -- and lofting Ziggy Stardust up as their own personal idol. Butler, shedding those dizzying extremes, is just another casualty of convention. -- Michael Gallucci