The Walkmen, ‘Heaven’ – Album Review
The Walkmen have always been funny about time. The New York band’s crisp guitar tone calls to mind the pre-distortion days of AM Gold and their evergreen lyricisms (fall in love, break up) rather traditional. But even more than era, the band has grown with age. Now together for a full 10 years, the band — having almost broken up before 2010’s ‘Lisbon’ — are now solidly career musicians, and that solidity informs the production and professionalism of ‘Heaven. It seems that after having kid, this is where they’ve ended up.
That professionalism was helped out by being around the best, including a stint touring with fellow harmony-laden critical darlings Fleet Foxes. This was formative, as Foxes producer Phil Ek produced the newest disc, and made the band get their act together, as bassist Walter Martin said in an interview that Ek “wouldn’t let us get away with our normal garbage of playing off-beat and half-assing it.”
Treating music as a 9-to-5 under the whip of Ek has lent the album again a sense of solidity, of precision — something needed, given how delicate the quintet aspires to be in their pop instrumentation. The result–especially when fused with Fleet Foxes swoon-inducer Robin Pecknold –is a rich yet measured album that eschews any leftover grit from the band’s earlier days for intensely pretty gloss.
The guitar of ‘We Can’t Be Beat’ arrives like a summer breeze, and Leithauser’sc onfession that “I was the duke of Earl but it couldn’t last / I was the Pony Express but I ran out of gas” amid the barbershop/doowop of his bandmates finds appreciation in coming short: “Give me a life that needs correction / Nobody loves perfection.”
But it does seem the Walkmen are going after making perfection, in the form of pop song. ‘Love Is Luck’ is a clear entry into that contest, or the surf rock of ‘Heartbreaker,’ or the toothache inducing sweetness of ‘Song For Leigh’ (for his baby girl!). In fact, it must be admitted that being that this is a Walkmen record, nearly every song is an attempt at pop perfection. The precision can give way to sterility, which is why the stranger tunes on ‘Heaven’ make it most durable.
Leithauser takes a melancholy tone in ‘Southern Heart,’ where he spins an anecdote of his calls from home and television. While the rest of the album is all sober pep, the quiet three minutes are drunken hurt “tell me again how you loved all the men you were after.”
The bit of bitterness adds texture to an album that tends to overdose on sweet.
As its title implies, ‘Heaven’ is an album acting as a kind of destination for the band. Having survived the foibles of rock youth, they turn to young rock adulthood, and the product is good: 13 songs as pretty as a roses — though those flowers are a tad too identical.