[Fat Possum / Bella Union; 2012]
Despite what NBC’s Olympic coverage would like you to believe, some of the most amazing feats performed during the 30th Olympiad have been in the Skeet Shooting competitions. Vincent Hancock’s super human performance, hitting 148 out of 150, was only challenged by Kim Rhodes eliminating 99 of her 100 clay pigeons on the female side. Both were record-setting and unprecedented, yet I can’t help but wonder what it would be like to be so close to perfection, with only one or two mis-steps in the way. You can’t blame them – as humans we are far from infallible. Even the greatest of athletes can have a moment of weakness (take the once indomitable Michael Phelps for example).
The same can be said for great musicians. Even the best artists have had their failed albums – Neil Young had “Everybody’s Rockin,” The Ramones had “Halfway to Sanity,” and Bob Dylan had “Down in the Groove.” So when I first listened to The Walkmen’s latest “Heaven,” I decided it must be the band’s first mediocre album. After an extraordinary series of five excellent albums (some may argue against “A Hundred Miles Off,” but they’ve probably never listened to it), I was okay with “Heaven” not continuing in the long line of instant classics.
During that first listen, I didn’t find the music bad in any sense of the word. It just seemed relaxed. In the past, Walkmen albums were often in your face with Hamilton Leithauser’s howling, Paul Maroon’s waves of reverb soaked guitars, and the rhythm section’s reliant, steady pace throughout. On “Heaven,” many of the songs are devoid of that signature reverb guitar in favor of an acoustic guitar and some don’t even have drums. My first assessment was that the band was comfortable and didn’t approach the album with the same focus and drive as on prior albums – as Stuart Smally would say, “And that’s okay.”
What I would realize on a second listen is that the band had grown up. Ten years ago they first broke onto the scene, a struggling band of New Yorkers clawing their way into the world of music, singing of heartbreak and loneliness in a way that instantly connected with listeners. Over those ten years the band continued that narrative through a series of albums that each took one step closer down the road to maturity. “Heaven” is the culmination of that journey, the band reaching that stage where they are more concerned with watching their kids play than having to deal with the trials and tribulations of dating.
The album’s relaxed approach wasn’t a sign of laziness; it was a sign of contentment. Instead of tearing at your heartstrings, it warms your heart with songs that are more about taking joy in little things than focusing on failures. On the album opener, “We Can’t Be Beat,” Leithauser makes this point clear, laying out the theme of the album: “We can’t be beat/ We can’t be beat/ We’ll never leave/ The world is ours.” The song also introduces the welcoming, folksy approach. Listening to “Heaven” I can imagine the band sitting around on a porch with their families, relaxing and singing away the night like Andy Griffith and the Darlings once did (that is, if Andy Griffith plugged his guitar into an amp and Briscoe Darling ditched his jug for a stand-up bass guitar).
“We Can’t Be Beat”:
The inside album artwork furthers this peaceful, satisfied feel with images of all five of the band members posing with their wives and children, smiling serenely like a scene from a JC Penny’s picture frame. The band that once traversed the battlefields of dating have finally found shelter in the form of the family structure. “Heaven” is an album for the family man, and as boring as married life may sound (or be), the album finds a way to make one feel envious of those who spend their days and nights changing diapers.
Often when bands get older, they try recreating the passion and fire of their earlier work, almost always unsuccessfully. On “Heaven,” The Walkmen have ignored the urge to recreate their youthful spirit, instead writing music about growing old, slowing down, and taking time to enjoy it. On the title track, Leithauser opens with an admission that, yes, age has indeed caught up with them, but he takes a strange joy in the process,” Our children will always hear / romantic tales of distant years / our gilded age may come and go / our crooked dreams will always glow.”
It would be misleading to characterize this album as an out-and-out celebration of matrimony, but even the more morose melodies are minute issues in comparison to their past work. On “Southern Love” the narrator yearns for his Kentucky roots from his city abode and on “No One Ever Sleeps” Leithauser whines about the sleepless nights that come with parenthood.
But the majority of the album portrays parenthood as a fulfilling venture. On “Line By Line” he takes on two personas, singing the back and forth between father and his child with the father reassuring them that everything is going to be alright: “Oh I’ve seen how this whole thing ends / The honest man survives / How do you know it / I just know it / I just know it.” The protective father stands in stark contrast to the lonely, secluded persona found on the band’s first hit song, ten years ago, “The Rat.”
“Line By Line”:
So, no, “Heaven” is far from a mis-step. In fact, I would argue it as one of their strongest albums to date. While we all strive for perfection in our lives unsuccessfully, The Walkmen have proven once again that it is possible if you just stay honest with yourself and be passionate about even the most mundane of day-to-day experiences.