Conventional wisdom would suggest that the older one gets, the more conservative he becomes. In a general sense, rather than a purely political one, this is more or less true. You go to sleep earlier, go out less, seek a job with better health insurance, go back to your natural hair color, settle down with a nice guy or girl rather than the wild, unpredictable one, and stop volunteering your own house for parties. Sometimes this is a good thing — you gain more stability, rest and, ideally, a bigger bank account. But become too conservative and you start to lose out on the elements of youth that you never stopped enjoying, or worse yet, you age yourself too fast.
Bands, like people, age too, and even chaotic noiseniks like Sonic Youth, it seems, are not immune from growing more conservative, themselves. Maintaining that balance between maturing gracefully and retaining an exciting, creative spark can be tricky, even unlikely, though one of the best examples for doing it the right way is The Walkmen. From their noisier early days more than a decade ago, up through the present, the group has been on a consistent, gradual curve, reliably offering a new full-length album every two years. They’ve deepened their sonic layers while ultimately sanding off the element which can make youth simultaneously the most exciting and frustrating time of one’s life: volatility.
Heaven, the Walkmen’s seventh album, is their warmest, least abrasive album to date, though that ironically makes it far from their safest. To date the band’s defining song remains 2004’s “The Rat,” a venomous and distorted garage rock seether that still reliably makes for amazing encores. In the years since, however, the group has shown little interest in repeating the drunken anger of that cathartic highlight, instead detouring through surf rock, Latin pop, Velvets-style ballads and a much quieter intensity overall. Here, as the album’s title suggests, they’ve landed upon a joyful and open-armed paradise, where one comes to celebrate victories rather than to drown sorrows.
From the opening acoustic ballad, “We Can’t Be Beat,” it’s not instantly apparent that this is even the Walkmen. Singer Hamilton Leithauser croons in a lower register rather than the fiery, blown out rasp for which he’s better known, offering weary observations like “I was the Duke of Earl, but it couldn’t last/ I was the Pony Express, but I ran out of gas.” This is about as far from “The Rat” as they could possibly get, the gentle guitar plucks and folksy wisdom significantly removed from rock `n’ roll’s stereotypical bluster and excess. Its clear-eyed honesty makes a compelling introduction, however, to the songs that follow, the bulk of which aim much closer to the higher energy, jangle-heavy Walkmen sound that has traveled 10 years to arrive here in top form.
Very much a rock album, yet with a sense of lived-in comfort and ease, Heaven finds The Walkmen casting off angst and uncertainty for a brighter disposition and more thoughtful introspection. The upbeat “Love Is Luck” mines the familiar topic of broken hearts, but Leithauser focuses less on the emotional fallout and more the funny-peculiar idea that true love is really coincidental in the end. In the hard driving Jesus and Mary Chain-style chugger “Heartbreaker,” Leithauser savors the moment in the face of a hopeless future, ruminating, “these are the good years/ ahh, the best we’ll ever know.” But it’s on the title track, which comes paired with an accompanying nostalgia-filled video, in which eyes get dewiest and hearts grow their most full. Over a simple, pulsing bassline, and a rich, chiming guitar hook, Leithauser lays down one of his most honest and straightforward messages of affection: “Stick with me/ oh, you’re my best friend/ All of my life/ You’ve always been.”
The Walkmen have traveled a long way from the dark, gritty atmosphere they concocted on their debut, 10 years ago, but the more time passes, the more comfortable and confident they seem just being themselves. As the band matures, however, they’ve grown much less conservative, even though by and large the volume has been dialed down a little. It’s almost quaint to think back to a time when the band could have been mentioned alongside NYC buzz bands like Radio 4 and French Kicks. Time has not only shown an impressive level of artistic growth for The Walkmen, but a depth that distortion alone can’t provide.
Video: The Walkmen – “Heaven”
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.