(Fat Possum; 2010)
By Andre Perry | 28 September 2010
Is it just me or are the Walkmen really chilling out? Have they relaxed that axe grinding they’ve been at so intently for the past ten years? Have life’s woes found some endurable balance? I ask these questions because some key aspects of their sound are absent from Lisbon. Most notably, this new album lacks what can only be described as an overall sense of menace. Yes, menace—that feverish current that runs through most Walkmen albums. Remember the psychological violence of “Emma, Get Me a Lemon,” the bitter satire of “We’ve Been Had,” or the drawn-out queasiness of “No Christmas While I’m Talking”? Everything on Lisbon is quaint in comparison: the fuzzy organs are subdued, the dissonant guitars have filed down their teeth, the drums, which once came off like canons, have retreated into an antebellum shuffle, and the vitriolic flamethrower that is Hamilton Leithauser’s voice seems somewhat peaceful now, content even. This is the Walkmen on holiday: sunglasses on, their feet in the warm sand, cool drinks on hand.
In lieu of their more aggressive past the Walkmen have opted to keep the charming cocktail swagger they’ve become so comfortable with—that Leonard Cohen posturing that keeps them anachronistically apart from many of their contemporaries. They’ve maintained those intricate guitar figures and perfectly resolving chord changes; the bass, the organ, the piano—they’re always coming in at the right time, always playing the right notes. Everything’s soaked in old-timey reverb and Leithauser’s voice, which, as distinctive and rich as ever, gets the full spotlight on Lisbon. In fact, for all of the spookiness (2004’s Bows & Arrows) and abstraction (2002’s Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me is Gone) they’ve left behind, this band has pulled off what sounds like their most effortless record to date. Even though their interviews and press releases claim this album took years, that they battled through recording and re-recording, and shoveled through something like thirty songs, each one of these cuts feels like it was precisely knocked out in about ten minutes. Yes, that’s it, this sounds good, now off to the bar for highballs and shenanigans. In one sense, it could be the coup of their careers.
Opener “Juveniles” really sets the scene. A rollicking, up-tempo sing-along with a chiming guitar hook, its centerpiece vocal alternates between restraint and a soaring chorus. It all builds up to what has become a lyrical Walkmen trope, Leithauser repeating, “You’re one of us / Or you’re one of them.” Entirely enjoyable and immediately addictive, “Juveniles” establishes a sonic middle ground between the two poles of what the rest of the album has to offer: leisurely ballads and fast-paced burners. The slower songs are what you’d expect from this band—lyrically reflective and achingly arranged—but the rockers are more compact than they have ever been. The epic sprawl of songs like “The Rat” and “In the New Year” has been refined into a direct and quick pop sensibility. There’s no time for brooding—straight to the hook.
Take the triumphant “Angela Surf City,” only a minute in and it breaks out of its shifty, timid verse into a breakneck, two-chord stomp of a chorus. Then there’s “Woe is Me,” one of the best pop songs they’ve written. Structurally, it’s not much different from “Angela Surf City”: a half-step verse, with the guitar line and Leithauser’s demure melody striking up a nice interplay, which leads into an arresting chorus of “Woe is me.” While the words suggest a somber mood, the song soon bounces into a chirpy bridge with lyrics about drinking ginger ale in the sun. From there it escalates into one of the most uplifting, sun-kissed outros this band has ever played. It’s kind of like they just cleared their throats and coughed out a single.
The final movement of this album slows things down quite a bit. With the exception of “Woe is Me,” the songs are long and none of them aim for immediate excitement. On first listen, it seems like an odd choice but deeper listens reveal remarkable touches on these quieter tracks: the doo-wop backing vocals of “Torch Song” are a refreshing departure for a band that hangs its hat so tightly on Leithauser’s singular croon; the vintage Leonard Cohen vocal breakdown in the middle and end of “All My Great Designs” is glacial and captivating; and “While I Shovel the Snow,” with its crawling tempo and nostalgic lyrics, brings back the wintry charm of “Blizzard of ‘96.” Anyone familiar with the Walkmen knows that these down-tempo moments are what give their albums staying power; this band, after all, isn’t just about emoting wildly, they are also apt to slow-burn, subtle epiphanies.
This album really could be the tipping (in either direction) for some listeners. Those who have always found the amped-up side of the Walkmen to be a little bit grating might find themselves pleasantly surprised with Lisbon, while detractors will claim that everything has been watered down. Instead, I urge everyone to listen to Lisbon closely; this is far from blog-fodder, this is an album entirely of deep cuts. It’s true the band has made a radical decision to turn down the volume on the wall of sound they’ve been building up since their debut, but in doing so they’ve turned up something else they’ve been fond of for so long: measured nuance.