Review Summary: Our crooked dreams will always glow.
I feel old. Not, of course, in the physical sense – according to the fine people at the census, I’m in the prime of my life – but damn are these numbers weighing me down. However high or low a certain decimal point is determines how many zeroes I will be making in two years time. I need to watch those points piling up on a license to keep low the amount of dollars on my insurance policy. There’s a minute difference in percentages that coldly looks down every year and decides whether to burden me with an extra twenty thousand in graduate loans or merely smiles and moves on. There are a lot of crafty little abbreviations – APRs, GPAs – that really just disguise what’s at the heart of everything: numbers, numbers to rule my life and numbers to ruin it. There are still dreams, but those dreams seem more obscured than ever by the crushingly mundane. This is why I enjoy Heaven
so much – it turns the mundane into something extraordinary.
It’s been ten years since the Walkmen released their first album, and more so than any band that I’ve really come to love, theirs is a group that has (cliche alert!) grown up before our very eyes. They came of age in that scrappy New York scene where dozens of red-eyed, shaggy bands went to shout and make a mark and, more often than not, die quietly and usually with less dignity than when they arrived. The Walkmen’s path seemed preordained, for the most part – Bows + Arrows
was the angular, mid-‘00s tour de force predictably co-opted by the mad men working for the WB/CW that plenty of other bands never overcame, while that Harry Nilsson cover album almost seemed like a dying gasp, one last shot across the bow of novelty before mutually agreeing to go their separate ways. Yet something funny happened with 2008’s You & Me
; although frontman Hamilton Leithauser still sang like he had just gone through a bottle of Bushmill’s the night before, the band seemed more at ease, more comfortable in their skin than the constantly fidgeting black-and-white shades of their earlier albums. Could it be, the Walkmen . . . growing old? Lisbon
, of course, virtually cemented this in a glorious burst of color, of New Orleans jazz processionals and wistful campfire sing-alongs, 2010 Leithauser dousing out the last dying embers of his old self with those first optimistic stanzas of “Juveniles.” And it was good.
celebrates those ten years not with fireworks and a blackout but with a picture of the band on the back cover, suited up and surrounded by their families. “It’s been so long, been so long, but I made it through,” Leithauser croons on opening track “We Can’t Be Beat,’ and there is nothing fiery or remotely venomous here, but pure contentment, even as Leithauser assures us that he wants “a life that needs correction / nobody loves, loves perfection.” Perhaps Leithauser protests too much; it’s difficult not to find perfection in Heaven
, which doesn’t attempt to expand the band’s sonic collage past the impressive borders they painted on Lisbon
, as kaleidoscopic and vibrant as they were. Instead, producer Phil Ek and the band would rather refine the edges and color in the blanks, all with an adroitness that the younger Walkmen would have trampled roughshod over. Ek has been content to traffic in workmanlike, midtempo indie for much of his career, and on Heaven
, he applies that knowledge consummately, pulling back the curtain on the Walkmen to a tighter canvas, one that focuses on just how good the band has gotten at the tints and hues and backgrounds. It’s the little things that jump out at you on Heaven
: the flashpoint of synths that close out “Line by Line;” the constant, faithful bass that underlines all of the triumphant, sweeping “Nightingales;” the cavernous drum echo on the aching “No One Ever Sleeps.” There’s no unusual motif like the horns on Lisbon
or the piano on You & Me
, but instead everything coalesces slowly around Paul Maroon’s flickering guitar and Leithauser, whose vocals have never sounded stronger or more centered than they do throughout Heaven
. Without Leithauser’s expressive pipes, worn down over the years, more restrained and consequently sounding better than ever, Heaven
is just another guitar rock record. With it, “Southern Heart” turns into a translucent web of delicate acoustic interplay and soulful vocals (“Tell me again how you love all the men you were after,” Leithauser whispers) and “Heartbreaker” turns into a surf rock anthem for guys who would never surf, full of Leithauser’s confident gruff: “I know the answers, to all your demands / I have no secrets.”
doesn’t move resolutely from point A to point B on the Walkmen Victory Tour as it does float there, sometimes leisurely (“We Can’t Be Beat”), sometimes forcefully (“Love Is Luck”), sometimes melancholy (“Dreamboat”); many other times, simply happy to be there. The Walkmen have never needed to be particularly complex songwriters – “Song For Leigh,” about the band’s respective children, is about as straightforward a hymn as you’ll find in contemporary indie – but it’s their mastery of the finer edges, the contours of a song, that has made them one of America’s special bands. Maroon’s sparkling guitar tone twists and slinks along throughout the record, providing the narcotic riff on the title track as easily as it does a luminous shimmer in “The Witch,” easing its way past Matt Barrick’s thudding kit and Walter Martin’s bass and distinctive organ, all deft arrangements purposed around the highlighting of Leithauser’s vocals and timeworn lyrics. There’s a depth to these tunes, one that comes not out of fast nights and wrecked relationships but the hindsight and experience of age; it’s a well that, thankfully, seems to be getting deeper and deeper.
The band don’t have to be ***kicking New York rockers anymore, just as much as they don’t have anything left to prove after Heaven
, the third in a trilogy that matches the best of any modern rock band. They’ve successfully grown up, far along into what should be the twilight of their career but what is, inexplicably and delightfully, a golden age. They remain proof that, perhaps, growing old is the best medicine for what ails you. “Our children will always hear / romantic tales of distant years / our gilded age may come and go / our crooked dreams will always glow,” Leithauser reminds us on the titular track. It’s a fitting thesis for a band that has never seemed caught unawares by what lies around the corner. In listening to Heaven
, I don’t feel quite so overwhelmed.