Fourteen years ago, Andy Butler released the self-titled debut album of his house and disco collective Hercules & Love Affair, and something shifted. Here came this big, brash, bright modern throwback to the moods and moves of the 80s, deeply indebted to past forebears like Donna Summer, Grace Jones, and the like. It was also deeply, unabashedly queer. Butler assembled a who’s-who of queer and trans musicians, like Nomi and Kim Ann Foxman.
Most notably, Butler handed half the songs to ANOHNI. Since ANOHNI was still leading The Johnsons through baroque and impossibly fragile champer pop albums like I Am a Bird Now and The Crying Light, it came as a bit of a shock to hear her hummingbird Nina Simone voice atop Butler’s groovy late-night songs, but it worked wonders. “Blind”, the lead single from the project, shot Butler and friends to indie stardom.
Ever since, though, the rotating cast of musicians and singers that Butler has surrounded himself with — changing quite a bit on each album — has led mostly to diminishing returns. By 2017’s Omnion, not even Sharon Van Etten’s smoldering vocal on the title track could rescue the whole album from the feeling like it was just missing something. “Blind” is an incredibly high bar — it’s one of the best songs of the 2000s — and one that would almost be unkind to expect any artist to live up to again. That being said, it can be a little dispiriting to hear Butler & co. stray so far from the dancefloor and into the moody no man’s land they find themselves at ontheir newest effort, In Amber.
One development along the band’s journey has been Butler growing more and more likely to take a lead vocal. He took the reins on a single track from the debut (“This is My Love”) and the woodenness of his delivery strangely worked quite well for the song. But ever since, it’s been rather hit or miss. Especially starting on Omnion, his voice sounded a bit untrained and unfocused. It was endearing, but not necessarily the strongest leading force. On In Amber, he fares a bit better, like on the calm storm of “Grace” or the mystical-sounding “The Eyes of the Father”. At times he sounds a little like Matt Berninger mixed with early Peter Gabriel. His voice doesn’t have a ton of power to it, but sometimes its fragile uneasiness is moving and tender.
Other times, though, it simply falls flat. This is especially egregious given that some of Butler’s lyrics this time around end up sounding awkward, or trite, or overly arch. For every oddly stirring line like “There are windows in the slaughterhouse / Just remember to look outside” (“Gates of Separation”) there’s a line like “The rib / Of a whale / Shall be our silver spoon” (“Who Will Save Us”) that just fails to add up to much besides artsy imagery.
Some of this is saved by the soundscapes, which, even though they are miles from the disco balls of his younger years, are often evocative. “Grace” has a sort of glowing velvety throb, and the closer “Repent” has a lovely Renaissance-Faire-in-a-snowglobe feeling, complete with gentle, optimistic strings and harpsichord. “Contempt for You” has an uneasy topsy-turvey quality (though this doesn’t really save the strange choice of having ANOHNI sing “f*ggot” over and over).
Ah, yes, speaking of — this album marks the grand return of Butler’s key companion. ANOHNI comes back in full force, singing on numerous tracks here. The electronics, synths, beats, jagged edges, and weird melodies are actually a more natural fit for ANOHNI, given her more recent output like the abrasively odd artpop of HOPELESSNESS. But here, even her turns end up a bit hit or miss. Some of this has to do with the writing, like on “One”, which is just sort of bland in its lyricism, melodies, and instrumentation, and her voice is used to rather grating effect on songs like “Contempt For You”. Mostly, though, she does well, especially on the penultimate “Poisonous Storytelling”, which sounds a little like late-era The Knife trying to make a metal song. ANOHNI singing a lyric like “It has to be the end of wealth / Theft from the Earth Herself / Reindigenize me / Return me to Her care” will still sound rather heavy-handed, but at least there’s a certain placid beauty to it.
Overall, it has been — and continues to be — intriguing to see Butler change the shape of Hercules & Love Affair. What started as a deeply fun and funky project has transformed into a mixed-genre, unpredictable animal. In Amber shows us various different sides of Butler, which sometimes leads to a disjointed listen, but it remains an honorable attempt at something new, at deepening of what he’s capable of. Some of it drags (looking at you, “You’ve Won This War”), and the lyrics, melodies, and sounds don’t always land. At times you can practically feel him straining for it all to Mean Something, but Butler remains a powerful and important voice in music, even when a particular album doesn’t fully succeed.