Like its title, Nick Africano’s The Butterfly Bull succeeds in these brilliantly contradictory ways. There are, over the course of its 12 songs, both shadows and light, familiar reference points and completely new amalgams, love and heart-rending hurt, crashing soul and crushing quiet.
And sometimes, all at once: “Big Sky,” for instance, fades in like a dream, as Africano opens the album with this confidential whisper. A guitar’s insistent strum seems to be all that’s holding him up through a series of trembling thoughts. As the song continues, though, Africano — and the song itself — begin to build up a head of steam, matching a growing confidence within the lyric. “Big Sky,” which started out feeling so small, ends as this sun-streaked, transformational moment of hope.
Africano never looks back on The Butterfly Bull, pushing songs like “Bring Me Water” and “Someone Say a Prayer” forward as lean, gospel-inspired calls to stay present, despite life’s difficulties. His vocal returns to a Springsteenish hush for “Heart of Dreams” and “Just Us Kids,” but his characters don’t seem broken so much as raw and expectant from having allowed themselves to truly feel.
“Stranger,” with its echoing, crepuscular steel guitar, boasts the wide-open musical spaces of the Cowboy Junkies, but with a far more direct approach to the narrative. “Let Me Go” jangles with a rockabilly charm, while “Shovel” features a devastating vocal that recalls Tim Buckley. “Tiny Stars,” with its combination of insistent pop rhythm, darkly ruminative piano, sweeping orchestral flourishes and heart-splashing lyrics, is like a lost track from Elton John’s magical 1970s-era of hitmaking.
The album’s most interesting moments come when Africano defies easy category, though, when he fakes left but goes the other way: The strings-laden “Slow Burn,” for instance, moves not with a swooning sadness but with a thrumming sensual anticipation. Africano finds a deep well of thankfulness for the gifts of love and companionship in tracks like “Everything Is Here” and “In Bocca al Lupo,” but — like so much of this moving new album from a fascinating new voice — he works hard to craft something that stays well away from cliche.
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