After over a decade of working together and seven studio albums, The Walkmen have moved their sound from an anxious rattle to a soothing hum. Lead singer Hamilton Leithauser controls the show. His voice may be where some people lose the band, but for their many fans, it’s dynamic, interesting, and completely unique. Like if Bruce Springsteen and Roy Orbison had a kid, put him in a suit, and stuck the result in an indie group.
On Heaven, released on May 29 under Mississippi’s Fat Possum Records, The Walkmen perfect their understated, yet powerful style. They come out softly with a ballad for the first track, titled “We Can’t be Beat.” It’s a patient, strikingly beautiful opener. Leithuaser croons, “Golden dreams, golden dreams all lose their glow, I don’t need perfection, I love the hope. Give me a life that needs correction. Nobody loves, loves perfection,” over acoustic guitar and do-op style harmonies from the band (and a special guest – Robin Pecknold, lead singer of the Fleet Foxes). It’s a classic Walkmen line, always reaching for something without quite attaining it. Their songs can be dreary, but the underlying hint of optimism-in the face of turmoil- never goes away.
The thread of slow, pretty ballads continues throughout the album. Track 5, “Southern Heart,” has Leithauser pleading, “tell me again how you love all the men you were after,” to some southern belle, over nothing but acoustic guitar. It’s the barest song on the album and intentionally leaves you on a melancholy note, only for track 6, “Line by Line,” to give you an uplifting boost. Guitar player Paul Maroon is a master of tone. His part on “Line By Line” slowly builds with the vocals to create for a spectacular ending. The album’s lead single, “Heaven” is an anthem, along the lines of past songs like “Angela Surf City,” “Juveniles,” or “Victory,” off of The Walkmen’s last album Lisbon. “Remember remember, what we fight for,” sings an impassioned Leithauser on the record’s title track over another memorable guitar line
Maroon is a crucial piece of the band in every single song. The more upbeat songs center around his punk influenced riffs. Track 8, for example, titled “Nightingales,” opens with a glaring, shimmering guitar line and Leithauser practically shouting “Lock me up and throw away my name. Mock our love, it don’t break.” Extra guitars pile on top of the furiously strummed chords then fizzle out into one string, plucked…then frenzy again. More classic Walkmen; tension- release – tension – release.
Closer, “Dreamboat,” -again featuring the background vocals of Robin Pecknold –is a truly perfect end to the record. It sums up the band’s venerability and simple beauty. The combination of Leithauser and Pecknold, two of the best vocalists in indie rock, is something to be heard. Leithauser’s gentle low melody and Pecknold’s smooth high harmony make their “no no no no no” ‘s shine.
The Walkmen take the sounds of some of the best folk and rock in our country’s rich musical history and make it their own. Heaven has earned its place among a a select group of modern American classics, such as Girls’ Father Son Holy Ghost, the Fleet Foxes’ Helplessness Blues, or Grizzly Bear’s Veckitamest. They all embrace a definitively American sound, which is instantly relatable. At the same time they are so distinctly current that they manage to push the bar forward, creating new landmarks for us all to enjoy. So, take a listen to the Walkmen’s Heaven, and support the band buy buying it on iTunes.