“Donde Esta La Playa,” the opening track on The Walkmen’s You & Me, begins not with a bang, but with a flicker. The slow slide of a cymbal arrives like the leap of a candle’s flame, with a muddled, bassy melody like the light dancing to slowly illuminate the room and reveal everything within its space. And when a trebly, reverb-heavy guitar comes crashing through the front door, everything comes into focus. Even though the song may become louder and Hamilton Leithauser’s voice may rise, within the intimate confines therein, nuance is still The Walkmen’s greatest asset.
In fact, nuance has always been The Walkmen’s greatest asset. Their best-known song, “The Rat,” is not the best example of that—its fiery, distorted sound and furious pace is something of an outlier for the band, having been played during Fox’s coverage of Major League Baseball and inspiring more than a few high fives and raised fists between enthusiastic dudes at their shows. And even if it is fantastic (which is most certainly is), it’s still somewhat unusual. Since debut Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Now Gone, The Walkmen have been particularly adept at creating a layered atmosphere, adorned with intricate details and quite often a nostalgic time-and-place feel.
While 2006′s Pussy Cats may have found The Walkmen taking a short break from their subtly crafted sound to do a playful round of covers, You & Me sets the New York band back in their element. You & Me is an intimate and haunting album, one that seems to exist in the wee hours of the night, revealing whispered details between couples, fear, resentment, resignation and even a bit of optimism now and then. And sometimes all of these elements come together within the same song; over the sprightly ending to “Donde Esta La Playa,” Leithauser sings with pained determination “last year’s Christmas was black and blue/ this year’s will be white.”
Just as the title of The Walkmen’s fifth album hints, the songs on You & Me have the feel of conversations between two people in a relationship, sometimes romantic but not without their share of dark moments. “On the Water” shuffles steadily along with a subdued melody, hushed in a manner similar to “Playa,” but steadily escalates toward a massive climax, wherein Leithauser matter-of-factly states “you know I’ll never leave you/ and that’s the way it is.” “In the New Year” is considerably brighter fare, with its ascendant chorus and proclamation of “It’s gonna be a good year!” Meanwhile, the ska and surf-inflected “Postcards From Tiny Islands” underscores a more celebratory, half-drunken sweet nothing, when Leithauser toasts “here’s to you and your setting sun.”
You & Me is a showcase for some of the Walkmen’s prettiest music to date, in particular the slow waltz of “Red Moon,” with a majestic ascent of horns arising before Leithauser croons “tomorrow, I hope to be home by your side.” The smooth garage soul of “Canadian Girl” recalls Sam Cooke and Roy Orbison, while “Four Provinces” is one of the most accessible, easy-swinging rock songs here, all tambourine and clacking percussion. On “The Blue Route,” the combination of eerie ambience, Latin-style percussion and distorted, old-school garage rock come together perfectly and sublimely, as Leithauser ponders, almost furiously, “you wandered down an open road and just kept going…what happened to you?!” It’s a glorious moment, intense but seemingly unexpected, as the music brilliantly nearly disguises the lyrical bile.
Four years ago, The Walkmen may have proven that they were capable of writing an incredible single, but all along, their true art has been in carefully and meticulously crafting magnificent albums. Though the bar may have been set high with Bows + Arrows, You & Me finds The Walkmen reaching even greater heights. It’s a dark and chilling record, but ultimately a beautiful one that isn’t so much heard as absorbed into one’s soul.