Ten years is an eternity for the same five guys (no “bun” pun intended) to barely keep their heads above water and keep playing. Their Facebook timeline paints an intrepid portrait of dog days past. “A bearded and hungover Pete Bauer (multi-instrumentalist) is stranded outside of a Starbucks, when a woman warmly and calmly directs him to the nearest homeless shelter.” “A 1000 pound check arrives from London, England for having 2000 copies of our first record destroyed.” “Bob, he dead.” We can only hope Bob and the rest of our quintet in question captured a small slice of Heaven — repurposing it for us mere mortals to consume by the soulful.
There’s Nothing Wrong with Love. Chutes Too Narrow. Helplessness Blues. Even Cease to Begin. Hallmark albums seem to flow out of Seattle based producer Phil Ek like a skinny vente on yet another rainy Tuesday. For all of its prowess thus far, The Walkmen have categorically exclaimed that for once strong outside guidance proved pivotal in “warming up” its sometimes frail sound. “He just won’t give you a fucking inch on your performance. We never realized how out of rhythm and out of tune we were before,” frontman Hamilton Leithauser admitted to Clash Music.
Heaven opener “We Can’t Be Beat” teases your ears for eons. Remarkably it pulls ten tons worth of tension via Mark Kozelek hollow picking and somber background harmonies that rise ever so slowly — like crisp baked dough on a winter morning. A resolute kickdrum march and twangy slide guitar submerge the tone toward some windswept wasteland. But the message is clear. Despite all of the naysayers and critics circling overhead, they’re still trekking toward the horizon unfazed.
Following the one merely-good track on the LP, “Love is Luck”, they decide to beef up their tone considerably for “Heartbreaker.” Leithauser insists: “I’m not your heartbreaker/Some tender ballet play/I’m not your heartbreaker.” Not much to look at on paper, but when paired with Pete Bauer’s strangely tuned rhythm guitar and Paul Maroon’s wandering lead, the results are infinitely more sonorous. The chords don’t even change that much. It’s executed so flawlessly that they don’t really need to.
“Southern Heart” and “Line by Line” are burnished by Ek’s recent collaborations with Fleet Foxes. Leithauser is clear as he is soft when he reels off an opening stanza for the former that James Dickey would surely toast to: “Family comes from Kentucky and they’re bourboning their blood/They left the country for the city in 1951/Me, I’m in between two worlds/Saw you on the TV last night.” A banjo gently eases its way into the coda to underscore a gorgeous melodic ebb and flow. If you dig viscous arpeggios, the kind that fill voids and open spaces like sonic glue, then the latter option is all that with a little Southern lullaby mixed in for good measure.
Even a more structured mid-tempo ditty like “Song for Leigh” possesses emotional breaks for Maroon’s axe to grind up against Leithauser’s pleas to follow him before he “sings himself sick.” If you silently demand at least one song sound like career definer “The Rat” then romper “Nightingales” is arguably a more mellowed out mature version ripened to sweet delight. “Jerry Jr.’s Tune” may be the most musically strong out of the bakers dozen packaged before us — and it doesn’t even have lyrics — just plaintive hums and submersed timpani.
Title tracks generally appeal to everyone. No bones about it, this is a commercial rock song through and through. But more importantly, this is what top 40 rock used to sound like, when there was a respective sample to draw from. Think of pop ballad off of U2’s The Joshua Tree blended with an uptempo rocker from R.E.M.’s I.R.S. Records days (“Radio Free Europe” perhaps?). Just don’t think too hard about it and let yourself be moved by an unassuming song for overtly assuming times.
Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes lends his dark tenor on “No One Ever Sleeps”, a tender love number reminiscent of The Everly Brothers golden years. Except this time, the ominous undercurrents are not filled in with brass or flowery arrangements. They are left barren to refract away any and all sadness during this a momentary respite for the tired and weary. After ten years of barely scraping by, The Walkmen can finally lay their bodies down and emanate a radiant beam of solid sound.