May 17, 2012
Review: The Walkmen – Heaven
When Hamilton Leithauser sings, “Give me a life that needs correction / Nobody loves, loves perfection,” on ‘We Can’t Be Beat’, it’s not with sorrow or undertones of bitterness, but with a distinct air of positivity. That this line appears in the opening track of The Walkmen’s seventh studio album, Heaven, drives home how much more contented the band seem to be, something that’s expressed regularly over the following 45 minutes.
For although the mode of delivery has remained constant throughout their ten years together (Leithauser’s airy vocal, Paul Maroon’s jangling Rickenbacker, twinkling pianos and tales of American lives), the roughly New York-based group have never sounded as focused. 2010’s Lisbon marked a critical career high, and it’s from that album’s sunnier disposition that Heaven finds its tone: ‘We Can’t Be Beat’’s gentle, pastoral folk on one side, ‘Love is Love’’s driving, National-like chimes on the other.
‘Nightingales’ shows off a newer, fuller production sound (gone is the papery feel to the drums heard on You & Me) with a flurry of high-register guitar chords and rolling heartland rock, offsetting nicely the delicate acoustic strum of ‘Southern Heart’.
There’s a cathartic moment in the middle of ‘Heartbreaker’ as Leithauser delivers another couplet of defiant positivity, declaring, “You know I’m hopeless / Oh no, oh no you’re wrong / It’s not the singer, it’s the song,” while Maroon’s guitar plays a rising, slightly demented riff behind him.
Subtle touches of afterthought are what really make Heaven work: the delights of ‘Jerry Jr.’s Tune’, a hushed reverie in a late night mood complete with distant guitar wails; the understated harmonies to ‘No One Ever Sleeps’ added by Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold, a recent touring mate; the howling keyboards augment ‘The Witch’’s eerie, waltz-time country. The album does drift off a little in the middle, where Leithauser’s elongated phrasing starts to slightly strain the ears on tracks like ‘Song for Leigh’, but all is forgiven by the general quality of the songwriting on offer.
The title track is the best thing here — a pacey display of two-chord mastery with an explosion of a chorus that sees Leithauser really stretching his voice for the first time, his plea to “remember, remember all we fight for” sounding not nearly as much of the Hollywood cliché that it appears when written down.
Heaven is the sound of a band reaching maturity; its members fully absorbed in its creation; its contents truly the ‘classic American rock songs’ Leithauser envisioned them to be. It has its faults, but then, as the band remind us early on, “nobody loves perfection”.
Read this review in context over at THE STOOL PIGEON