Despite a discography as dynamic and varied as any in the 21st century, The Walkmen have never gotten their due. Rather, they’ve always seemed to be on the verge of breaking out, yet for one reason or another, they never truly have. Sure, they’re well-respected in the indie community, but they’ve never reached that top tier, never had the album sales of The Black Keys or Arcade Fire. This would be understandable if their style was highly experimental, but it’s not. Not to say they’re boring or predictable, quite the opposite in fact, but their sound seems accessible enough to reach beyond the Pitchfork crowd. They have the catchy, anthemic singles (“The Rat,” “Angela Surf City,” “The New Year”), critical respect, an acclaimed live show, a handful of television appearances. All of the pieces for a breakout have been in place for years. But for reasons neither they nor I will ever understand, they never “made it” to the extent their impressive body of work merits. While their newest release (Heaven) is their most easily digestible yet, the band is probably too far into their career to finally get the break they deserve.
Heaven maintains The Walkmen’s consistent excellence, just not at the level of their previous album, 2010’s Lisbon. Like all Walkmen albums, Heaven is a grower; it takes about 3-4 listens to truly reveal all of it’s intricacies. While that might be frustrating for some, for me it’s a mark of excellent craftsmanship. The Walkmen create music that is built to last, and last it does.
Twelve years without a lineup change has left The Walkmen as cohesive as ever. These guys clearly know each other inside and out, their tics, their stylistic flourishes. Each member of the band plays an important role, as one could easily make the case for at least three of them being the band’s MVP. It’s this type of depth that makes The Walkmen consistently compelling. Everyone plays off each other perfectly, each element complementing every other. Whether it be a drum pattern providing forceful emphasis for a bass line, or Hamilton Leithauser’s voice momentarily matching Paul Maroon’s guitar note, Heaven is full of those little moments that only great bands can produce.
While they’re relatively minor, the album does have its problems. First and foremost, much of the creative tension that characterized The Walkmen's previous work is gone. Yes, the chemistry is there, but it’s a more comfortable chemistry. This makes for a somewhat relaxed vibe, at the expense of the raw emotion on their previous records. The nervous energy and sense of despair of Bows and Arrows, and the overwhelming feelings of longing on Lisbon have been softened by the band’s more orderly approach. Where each member of the band used to feel a bit off, they’re now more in sync. This would be a positive for just about any band, but The Walkmen thrived off of that messiness. Producer Phil Ek, whose credits include indie rock staples such as Chutes Too Narrow and Helplessness Blues, bears most of the blame for this shift. To his credit, The Walkmen sound remarkably clean and crisp, and maybe their ramshackle sensibilities would have grown stale, but Heaven doesn’t quite resonate with me as much as their previous work.
Minor quibbles aside, Heaven does have some knockout tracks. “The Love You Love” and “The Witch” harken back to their earlier days in the best way possible, but the title track and “Song for Leigh” are the album’s standouts, each providing The Walkmen an excellent blueprint for using their new sound in the future. The tighter, more focused style is brilliantly utilized, giving the songs a momentum that keeps them chugging along at a steady clip. But they also pack the type of emotional punch that makes their best songs so special. When Leithauser bemoans an unnamed acquaintance, “Don’t leave me/Oh you’re my best friend,” on “Heaven,” he means it, and that sincerity transfers to the listener.
No, it’s not The Walkmen’s best, but Heaven is still one heck of an album, one that I’ll surely return to time and again. As Leithauser fittingly croons on the first track, “The world is ours/we can’t be beat,” Heaven keeps the Walkmen’s seven-album winning streak intact, leading me to wonder: will they ever be beat? If their career thus far is any indication, probably not.
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