The Walkmen, Heaven
May 30, 2012
The Walkmen of 10 years ago wouldn’t have been too keen on Heaven, the band’s sixth and biggest-sounding record. Back then, inﬂuenced in equal parts by Bob Dylan and The Cramps, an album like this one—full of huge hooks, big choruses and arena-ready melodies—would’ve never ﬂown in the band’s early years. But, more than anything else, this new record shows signs that the band has grown up considerably. And it seems like The Walkmen are taking a bit of sugar in their coffee these days.
In the beginning, when they started out by piecing together the wreckage of two former acts, The Recoys and major label lotto winners Jonathan Fire*Eater, there was an immovable chip on the band’s shoulder. Things like leaving the stage after a 35-minute headlining set with no encore and allegedly shunning tourmates for entire tour legs led music fans to believe these were boys of privilege trying desperately to prove something. The songs, however, were sung from the perspective of a down and out loner. Now, with Heaven, they come off as humbled, hard-working family men (promotional photos for the album feature the band members with their families), content to be doing what they’re doing, which, according to most of the album's lyrical content, is trying to keep their relationships intact. The humility is most evident in the album’s opening lyric. “We Can’t Be Beat” begins minimally with an acoustic guitar and lead singer Hamilton Leithauser softly singing I was the Duke of Earl, the Duke of Earl, but it wouldn't last / I was the Pony Express, but I ran out of gas. Assuming he’s singing about the band’s former glories—the power of “The Rat,” still the band’s most well-known song and one of the best singles of the aughts—there have been still moments that put the band back to square one, wondering what to do next. But each time, they managed to box their way out of a corner. The song wells up with Leithauser, backed by the Beatles-esqe harmonies of his band, repeating “We can’t be beat.”
That lyric acts as Heaven’s thesis statement. As such, this album is the biggest haymaker of the band's career. “The detachement [sic] you can feel throughout our younger records is gone,” said Leithauser in a press release leading up to the album’s release. “We felt like it was time to make a bigger, more generous statement.”
Hook after hook, the band goes where it’s never gone before, at times even evoking early U2, other times conjuring the soul of reggae songs. Drummer Matt Barrick is put on a tight leash, playing the rhythms straight, giving guitarist Paul Maroon more room to move around. Even still, moments of tension and aggression burp up to the surface of Barrick's playing.
But where the drums hold back, the songs offer the biggest release. “Heaven,” the album’s ﬁrst single, drives with a rolling guitar, careening into a massive singalong chorus and an Unforgettable Fire–era, U2-style outro.
On “The Love You Love,” easily The Walkmen’s best song since “The Rat,” the tense, punkish pre-chorus ramp-up is outshined only by the wide open chorus, in which Leithauser sings, Baby, it's the love you love / not me.
That’s only one of the painful revelations sung on Heaven. On “Heartbreaker,” the lyric After the fun, after the bubblegum / There is no sweetness left on my tongue is perhaps an examination of the band’s past—living through all the highs of life as a popular musician and realizing a feeling of dissatisfaction still exists.
Looking back, seeing the band’s previous steps and missteps, it’s easy to see its evolution. Early on, Leithauser would scream every lyric from the stage with a vein pulsing from his neck. That his vocal chords are still intact after years of abuse is a miracle. Now, he croons more than he howls—a sound much better suited to the hefty songs on Heaven.