When I heard about the new Walkmen record I was excited simply because it was to be titled Lisbon. Actually, I probably would have been excited anyway, as You & Me was their best, wire to wire, record to date, a record that I surprised myself by going back to again and again, and not just for one or two songs, as had been the case with previous albums. And, as I say over and over again, it is nice to be surprised, especially when surprise seems like a very far out possibility. But a record called Lisbon, different story. That was my city for two years and my expectations immediately went up, pleasantly so. Sunshine and hills and tiles and strange patterns of cobbles…and a lot more of course. How would the Walkmen jam it into an album? Why did I believe that they would?
Because they didn’t of course.
Lisbon is a city of intense impressions and Panda Bear’s Person Pitch could have and maybe should have been called Lisbon because it so ably and gorgeously managed to take hold of some of the best of them. It was a departure, of course, for Noah Lennox from his previous body of work. And that may be what I expected, may be what I expect any time a record is named after a place, a city, a country, an island: for the place to have gotten inside of the people who made the record and altered significantly. And, of course, for that change to emerge through the music. It may be a ridiculous expectation but it is also an optimistic one, because it allows for the possibility of developing productively as a result of encounters with cities and people and, well, anything.
And all that said, Lisbon is not really a disappointment; it is a pretty, pretty damn good record. There are underwhelming moments and there are some fantastic successes. Foremost among the latter are the churning emotion/adrenaline rush that is the first single, “Angela Surf City,” and the most Sun Records sounding song on an album allegedly influenced by that legendary label, the sublime and poignant, “Blue as Your Blood.” Hamilton Leithauser nasally cooing, “Black is the color of your eyelash / Spanish is the language of your tongue” is one of those transcendent moments that pop up in some of the best songs of the 20th century. It hits you sideways, spins you around and leaves you groggily gazing back through your “hazy, lazy days,” browsing for a suitably apposite memory.
“Stranded” is also excellent, the Mexican-sounding horns giving it a pleasant sway in which Leithauser gets lost and ruminative, growling into the empty night, wailing off-the-cuff questions like, “What’s the story with my old friends / Drunk and lonely, to a man.” Again, a song that is great enough, but then gets taken to a whole other level by a moment of sheer, visceral human vulnerability. It’s a trade off with Leithauser. Sometimes, he just nails a song, and others, his droning, stylized crowing can just be off-putting, even annoying. That’s the case with album opener, “Juveniles,” which simply misses its mark, at least as an opening song. It doesn’t draw you in and a couple of the vocal notes may make you want to walk out the door right there. Or, they may be your thing. In any case, it is an ill fit at the front end of Lisbon.
“Lisbon,” the song, however, is gentle and melodious, a dreamy little exit. It floats and twists and seems to flash with a light akin to the kind that shines only in the city on the Tejo. We don’t get a whole album of that, and maybe that makes sense. Lisbon, they say, the Walkmen, was where they wrote the first songs through which the record started to come together, to have a sound. And that that sound isn’t the city itself, maybe that is just a small disappointment for people who keep its magic sealed away in well-marked, oft-handled boxes in the closets of their imaginations. I don’t know if I will return to this album as I did to its predecessor, but without doubt there are songs here that belong with the band’s best work, gritty and minimal songs that have a mysterious gravity that very few acts at work today are able to achieve.