When you consider just how much caché The Walkmen had gained following the breakout success of their second record, Bows + Arrows, their fourth album, the bizarre full cover of Harry Nilsson and John Lennon’s Pussy Cats, becomes ever more the career-hampering slip up. Bands are entitled their occasional misstep, just ask Billy Corgan, a man who has made a career of them. But no, Pussy Cats Starring The Walkmen seems special not just for its awkward awfulness, but for the simple fact that, were it to miraculously disappear from the Walkmen’s discography, we’re probably having the conversation about Hamilton Leithauser and company being the best band in America.
Heaven, crazily, is The Walkmen’s seventh album. To spoil the next few hundred words, it’s also their best. A button-up affair unafraid to strip itself down to near nakedness for emotional impact, Heaven is yet another maturation of the dogged New York indie rock most of their compatriots have long since abandoned, yet from which The Walkmen still seem to be finding new paths to wander down.
Most magical about Heaven is how much it leaves behind of The Walkmen’s bread and butter. No, you will find no songs that update classics like “The Rat” or “Angela Surf City” or their manic, uncontrollable genius. In it’s place are songs like “We Can’t Be Beat” and “Southern Heart,” plaintive, decidedly in control numbers highlighting Leithauser’s well-worn rock croon, which itself seems even keeled and adult. When he’s given three seconds of unaccompanied belting before falling into Fleet Foxes-esque folk, Hamilton’s voice doesn’t scratch or wail. It just beautifully cries out in a tradition that includes such men as Buddy Holly. “Beat” is a stunning opener for all its first times for The Walkmen – carefully curated folk, with nary a shred of the jangle that made them so famous.
Although don’t worry, the jangle is in top form as well. For the next three tracks the band fire back jab after jab of pristine indie rock, from the You & Me style island-isms of “Love is Luck” to the squelching hookiness “Heartbreaker” and on to the blues-flecked love-shod cooing of “The Witch.” There aren’t great sonic differences from their previous albums when The Walkmen go back to their strong suits, but if that sounds boring it shouldn’t. Talking about the greatness of The Walkmen’s version of indie rock almost feels like talking about the way the San Antonio Spurs play basketball. Yep, to somebody who doesn’t appreciate the craft, it is boring. But for anybody looking even moderately hard enough, the only semi-manic brilliance of the title track is just another exciting affirmation of The Walkmen’s prowess.
For devotees and attuned fans, however, the middle three tracks of Heaven are a triumph of genre-bending indie-rock touching as many conceivable sonic bases at once while maintaining a firm grasp on the Harlem beginnings that sprung forth this band. “Southern Heart” has a not at all trite western dust about it, punctuated by Leithauser’s not at all dusty voice singing “It’s your southern heart I’m after.” Such a line should probably come with some foreboding, but it’s such a pretty, odd duck that it feels completely natural. “Song for Leigh” turns a remarkably alt-country jaunt around a quintessential Walkmen line – “I sing myself sick about ya.” But the centerpiece is “Line by Line,” a mystical number that creeps along with its dark, preacher like hymns about justice until finally blossoming into a beautiful outro for mere seconds, then disappearing. It’s a perfect amalgamation of the ennui and songcraft of a Walkmen song – the sun is out, but you’re wearing black.
Perhaps the reason The Walkmen haven’t been a world beating force is by pedigree. They’ve successively trimmed more of their youthful rage with each album, rage which is what make Arcade Fire and, to a lesser extent, The Strokes so endearing. They don’t have the international intrigue of bands like Arctic Monkeys or M83. They certainly don’t have the backstory of Bon Iver or the raw joy of takeover band in waiting Japandroids. The Walkmen, by their very own precise, surgical nature, were never going to be the consensus favorite. But just like the Spurs, The Walkmen have consistently put together a stretch that could rival anybody else’s, all the while flying under the radar. One presumes Heaven, its excellence notwithstanding, will do nothing to change this. Nevertheless, it would behoove you to snatch Heaven and witness a band, seven albums in, at the height of their powers. And while you’re at it, catch a Spurs game for me.
The Walkmen – Heaven Tracklist:
- “We Can’t Be Beat”
- “Love Is Luck”
- “The Witch”
- “Southern Heart”
- “Line By Line”
- “Song for Leigh”
- “Jerry Jr.’s Tune”
- “The Love You Love”
- “No One Ever Sleeps”