It was 2002 when I first saw the video for “Wake Up” from the debut album by The Walkmen titled Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone. I was watching my most recent VHS recording of the MTV2 show 120 Minutes, when on came a promo featuring a group of smartly dressed lads playing in what looked like the darkly lit supply room of some abandoned building. The song’s chomping guitar riff gouged the walls, the drummer played with total abandon, and the singer wailed with a laid-back ease that was restrained, but intimidating. The whole thing reminded me of the equally raw and haunting video for “Love Will Tear Us Apart” by Joy Division. It was love-at-first-sight.
Roughly ten years would go by between the time that I first saw the “Wake Up” video and the time that I purchased my first record by The Walkmen. Songs like “Wake Up,” or “The Rat” and “Little House of Savages” from their sophomore album Bows & Arrows, would grab my attention only to have the rest of their respective albums not appeal to me. Seeing the band live three times didn’t seem to help matters as singer, Hamilton Leithauser, always seemed to be straining to be heard above the maelstrom of guitars and drums. Every album released by The Walkmen seemed to garner more praise, yet I couldn’t get onboard. In your typical romantic-comedy, this is where they’d queue a montage of the star-crossed lovers getting by without each other…for a decade.
My purchase of Heaven, the new album by The Walkmen, was a too long delayed leap-of-faith that happened after hearing a few songs and seeing a live performance of the album’s title track on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. The record sleeve offered the first clue that The Walkmen and I really had some catching up to do. Photos of the band posing with their children and significant others greeted me like I was an old friend dropping by after years of little communication. Their answer to my question “What have you been up too all of these years?” arrives in the form of thirteen tracks of pitch-perfect indie-rock. Everything I liked about the young band in the dank supply room, and all of their later explorations that I took for granted have coalesced into an album that is powerful and moving in an unassuming way. Hamilton Leithauser, whose vocals I’ve always likened to that of Rod Stewart, sings with a command of his voice that makes it the true sonic centerpiece of the “Walkmen sound.” When the song, “Love Is Luck” drunkenly struts into the room, it is Leithauser’s affable croon that lets you know that the song’s narrator is looking for a friend and not a fight. Band members Matt Barrick, Peter Bauer, Paul Maroon, and Walter Martin have developed a chemistry that is ten-plus years strong; allowing them to conjure up the exact quality of dissonance or beauty that a given moment requires. The songwriting on Heaven is economical and focused with songs like “Heartbreaker,” “The Love You Love,” and “Heaven” sounding like chart-toppers from three separate decades. As Leithauser pleads “Remember-remember-all we fight for,” on “Heaven,” it almost sounds like an alternate chorus to the Rod Stewart classic “Young Turks.” Heaven is stuffed with the sort of sing-along moments that made the first Strokes record such a classic collection of gritty pop, and the early material by Radiohead so cathartic. It alternately rumbles with the intensity of The Velvet Underground, while at others it swings and sways like something dreamed up by The Smiths. Heaven is simply a damn good listen.
After only a few spins, the charms of the more subdued tunes on Heaven become very evident. They explore a disparate set of styles and ideas with more than satisfactory returns. Songs like “Southern Heart” and “Line by Line” resemble the artsy folk-balladry of a song like “Working Class Hero” by John Lennon, while “We Can’t Be Beat” and “No One Ever Sleeps” sound like twisted takes on doo-wop with the former even directly referencing the song “Duke of Earl.” Now that I’m more familiar with Heaven the only thing unbearable about the slower material is the knowledge that a barnburner like “The Love You Love” is waiting in the wings; preparing to give me goose-bumps and tear my heart out.
The lyrics on Heaven can be cryptic and a little vague at times which, I’m not afraid to admit, might have more to do with the ADD I have when it comes to evasive lyrics than anything else. The sentiments and emotional origins of the songwriting ring very clear, like when on “Heaven” Leithauser sings “Our children will always hear romantic tales of distant years-Our gilded age may come and go; our crooked dreams will always glow.” As I write these words my wife and I are expecting a new baby boy in a few short weeks. Heaven, more than anything else I’ve heard this year, speaks to me on terms of the emotional rollercoaster and potent nostalgia that my wife and I have been experiencing for almost nine months now. If I would have gotten over myself and gave the kids in the “Wake Up” video more of my time perhaps I, pretty much a kid myself at the time, would have made a real connection with their music.
Better late than never.
Your stairway to Heaven is at Insound.