opinion byMATTHEW M. F. MILLER
“5AM”, a dark and simmering piano-meets-strings love song might be the closest Hamilton Leithauser will ever come to writing a James Bond theme. It’s a moody, unexpected starting point for his solo career and makes for one doozy of an opening statement on Black Hours, a genre-hopping, solid debut. Here, Leithauser travels the same clever, lovelorn lyrical path he’s been touring since The Walkmen exploded circa 2002, only now with a cleaner, poppier, old-timey sound to add warmth to his sobering love songs. Now that The Walkmen have imploded – they are on a self-proclaimed “extended hiatus” – it’s leader has infused the majority of these 10 tracks with a warmth and immediacy that allows easier entry than does the bulk of his band’s rock catalog, yet does so to mixed results. What Black Hours lacks in depth and complexity, it tries to make up for by having a rousing good time, and more often than not it succeeds.
On the aforementioned opener, Leithauser croons, “Do you wonder why I sing these love songs when I have no love at all?” If your answer is yes, prepare to be wooed. Everything about the song is melodramatic, from the stand-up bass to the prominent tambourine to the plunky piano. It practically begs you to light up a smoke, throwback some scotch and contemplate the complexities of love in the time of Don Draper.
Nearly every song sounds like part of a different genre-movie soundtrack. “The Silent Orchestra” gallops, an energetic western-tinged track replete with marimba and spaghetti guitar. It also features soft, lovely backing vocals from Amber Coffman of The Dirty Projectors. “Alexandra” shines, in part because it sounds the least like The Walkmen. Handclaps, foot stomping, harmonicas, just for funsies drum-fills – it’s a big fat pop song that wouldn’t sound out of place playing over the credits of a halfway decent rom-com. It’s not hard to imagine Tom Jones belting out the chorus of the infectious “I Don’t Need Anyone”, which finds the perfect middle ground between indie-rock and cheesy showmanship.
During a span of six good-to-great albums, fans of The Walkmen have come to expect varied tones and deliveries from the vocally dexterous Leithauser, who is as capable of stadium-filling rock wails as he is Sinatra style crooners. At times, Black Hours definitely toes the lines between quality art, novelty and gimmickry. For diehard Walkmen fans, the total package ultimately might be a bit of a retro letdown. Songs like the listless “Self Pity” and the doo-wopping “I Retired” almost beg for grittier arrangements, and only serve to remind listeners that this kind of wandering experiment in sound and genre has its limits. At first glance the cover art, with it’s stark black-and-white aesthetic that features nothing but a beaming, coiffed Leithauser and a few orb artifacts, establishes the album’s mission as singular. Black Hours is a throwback, but it’s a throwback that could have benefitted from a few more forward-looking ideas. B-