Artist of the Week: The Walkmen

Let it be known that the soundtrack for the autumn season of 2008 is The Walkmen’s You & Me.

There may be other albums in the offing that capture the fall with more darkened majesty, but the likelihood of another such complete and fully realized full-length, perfectly suited for fading foliage and flickering relationships, is low.

This is an album for adults who have dealt with shit. It’s for people who have made the unfortunate realization that life only gets more complex, with clarity often becoming the chief casualty. The carefree feeling of recess, that beautiful thing of childhood, has become harder to find. Barely anything is black and white anymore; a billion shades of gray complicate every decision, whether it’s about friends, significant others, work or politics.

In other words, as the years go by and the memories accumulate, the urge to dwell upon and re-analyze life becomes harder to resist.

This all sounds horribly grim, but therein lies the magic of good music. Good music gives one a friend; a fellow comrade in this fight for clarity through the fog of  life. The Walkmen, with their fourth proper full-length, and their first for the New York City-based label Gigantic Music (The Boggs, Dragons of Zynth, Human Television) have delivered such an ally.

Ever observant and introspective, the lyrics of frontman Hamilton Leithauser  focus on relationships throughout You & Me, and more specifically how these relationships evolve over time. Under the red moon along a darkened seashore, in a bar with  a shitty house band, upon the travel-weary soles of a dying wanderlust, or rung around the non-stop cycle of a life divided only by holidays, Leithauser examines the connections he has made, and lost, with the people in his life.

The Christmas holiday, in particular, seems to loom over the entire record. The fact that it’s coming, but not yet here – oh the drama of that yuletide buildup- makes for the primary conflict within You & Me. This is illustrated best by how a solitary shake of the sleighbell serves as the snare in “Red Moon,” as if rapidly shaking the instrument, in the classic fashion, would kill the tension, and prematurely ring in the Kringle.

“Last Christmas was black and blue /But this year is white,” sings Leithauser in “Donde Esta La Playa,” a lyric that seems somewhat optimistic considering the overall tone of the record.

Fall, and its escalation into winter, can be a time of reflection, rumination, and harsh reality. When you’re a kid, it’s all about getting presents. But as an adult, you realize it was about family and friends, and now some of those friends and family members are no longer around.

It’s this very dwelling on the yearly recycling of fonder holiday memories that seems to echo throughout You & Me.

The peak of this emotional roller coaster lies within the song “In The New Year.” With a simply epic organ melody (on a level with the guitar riff from David Bowie’s “Rebel Rebel,” or the drum intro to The Ronette’s “Be My Baby”) this revelation would be worth the price of the entire album, even if the rest of the songs sucked (which they don’t – for real, get it on 180 gram vinyl, even if you don’t have a record player).

And speaking of the rest of the songs on You & Me, drummer Matt Barrick, like the signature red wax on a bottle of Makers Mark, is responsible for the defining punctuation. Whether it’s the claves in “Four Provinces,” the oddly humorous effect of clattering blocks in “Canadian Girl” or the masterful progression of rhythm in “On The Water,” Barrick seems to have figured out the exact science of matching moods to percussion.

Of course, the Dylan-esque voice of Leithauser is also key to the success of You & Me. The learned emotion in his voice is so arresting, frankly, it’s absurd. Other writers have already noted the pivotal moment within “Red Moon,” when he sings “And you shine /Like the steel  /On my knife /The darkness is wrapped /All around /Me tonight.”

It sounds trite, but Leithauser’s delivery of that verse has the effect of a 45. caliber gunshot, establishing straight-up stopping power and immediate undivided attention. The band knows it too, because they pause for a few seconds before bringing back the music. All you can hear is the softest of strumming, like a sigh.

For another example of this ludicrous power, listen to Leithauser hit the peak of his range during “In The New Year.” He sings “Oh, I’m just like you /I never hear the bad news /AND I NEVER WILL! /We won by a landslide /Are troubles are over /My sisters are married /TO ALL OF MY FRIENDS!”

Thought-provoking lyrics sung impeccably, what more could one ask for?

Ironically, in the verse just before, he sounds uncannily like Rod Stewart when he rasps “And my heart’s in the strangest place.” It actually makes for a funny moment, as it recalls The Rod’s pink tie and pimpery, and at a highly unlikely juncture. But, hell, even Shakespeare’s Hamlet has a little comic relief, right?

It’s just easy to rank You & Me as one of the best albums of 2008. This is one of those rare no-brainers of a record, in that hitting play is all you have to do. No skipping is necessary.

Furthermore, credit must be given to The Walkmen and Gigantic Music for releasing You & Me in excellent fashion. First off, the record was initially dropped only in the form of a digital download via Amiestreet, at the low price of $5, with all profits going to the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.

Second, the hard copy came out on August 19th, just in time for the fall. It’s worth repeating how criminal it would have been to release You & Me in the spring, or the beginning of summer.

Indeed, there will be other, more suitable records for those seasons. Fall of 2008, however, belongs solely to The Walkmen.

-Matt

Live!

Sep 18 2008 at the Middle East in Boston, MA
Oct 2 2008 at the Cats Cradle in Carrboro, NC
Oct 3 2008 at The Earl in Atlanta, GA
Oct 4 2008 at the Common Grounds in Gainesville, FL
Oct 5 2008 at The Social in Orlando, FL
Oct 8 2008 at Republic in New Orleans, LA
Oct 9 2008 at Walters in Houston,TX
Oct 10 2008 at The Parish in Austin, TX
Oct 11 2008 at Pontiac Garage in Dallas, TX
Oct 12 2008 at the Hit Tone in Memphis, TN
Oct 13 2008 at The Basement in Nashville, TN
Oct 14 2008 at Southgate House in Newport, KY

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2 responses to “Artist of the Week: The Walkmen

  1. Nice album review.

    I currently have a profile on Hamilton and the band on Behancemag.com that I thought you would enjoy. It can be found here:

    http://www.behancemag.com/Ones-to-Watch–Hamilton-Leithauser-of-The-Walkmen/5753

    Enjoy and again, great review,
    Dan

  2. i agree, great read! i’m seeing the walkmen the 9th in houston, and i’m so excited – i just found out The Little Ones are opening!! what a great show that’ll be. can’t wait for the record to come out this tuesday!

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