You & Me
By Andre Perry | 27 August 2008
We needed this. The Walkmen needed it, sure, but so did our collective timelines. So did the year 2008, if we’re talking about indie rock (which we are). In a year characterized by indie stalwarts attempting to both reassert and hone what made them famous while pushing into new territories (bands like: the Notwist, Subtle, Portishead, Sun Kil Moon, Mount Eerie, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Mogwai, Wolf Parade), and subsequently, in many cases, making something that is uninteresting, it’s no surprise that the Walkmen have created a collection that is both a detour from and a fine-tuning of ideas presented on previous efforts. But what makes You & Me so wonderful is its clarity—in its influences, in its maturity, in the vocals no longer screaming to be heard, even in the way the bass comes through from the get-go, still dirty, microphones bleeding, but surprisingly gentle.
This is certainly the quietest outing since their debut, Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone (2002), which at times dipped into a wintry mix of disparate organ tones, tape machine texturing, and emotional distance by way of sardonic lyricism. Singer Hamilton Leithauser’s always been interested in the failures of love and the missteps of those around him, but his stance has frequently been one of disdain. Just look back two years ago to the loveless apathy on “Emma Get Me A Lemon” or the outright hatred on “All Hands and the Cook”; take the vicious threats of “The Rat” or the biting sarcasm on “We’ve Been Had.” These were instances of Leithauser barely contained, young and brash, at times dumb. But on You & Me the most engaging thing he espouses is sincere regret. On “I Lost You” he croons, “We’ll drink up the hours before the dawn / I’ll miss you when you’re gone,” and it’s as tender as we’ve ever heard him. Even on this album’s harshest lyrical outbursts, tracks like “The Blue Route” in which Leithauser repeatedly demands of his subject, “What happened to you?!” he sounds more curious, concerned even, than bitter.
Of course, the staples of the Walkmen sound remain intact: the generous reverb, the vintage pianos and organs, the playful and dominant drums, and the subtly inventive percussion. If part of their schtick has been to embrace the sounds of a time past without really honing in on any particular era, artist, or purpose, they certainly push it to the limit on You & Me. Touching on the production techniques of, say, Roy Orbison and Buddy Holly—the brass section on “Red Moon” fills the space in the band’s echo with pop grandiosity—as well as the worn mystique of their longtime hero, Leonard Cohen, the album doesn’t end up sounding like classic rock as much as it just sounds old. Golden Age crooner old. Dying poet old. Doomed rockstar indulgence old. In fact, Pussycats, the Walkmen’s full-length cover version of a Harry Nilsson record that ravaged the poor pop maestro’s throat under the guidance of pal John Lennon, makes a lot more sense after You & Me. The original was a beaten, loose affair, and in retrospect the younger band’s re-contextualizing seems a dry run through all the old tropes of old-ness they now emulate with charm.
Perhaps nothing here is staggeringly original, but everything is careful, nuanced, and perfected. The organ riff on “In the New Year” is a cutesy, off-step counter to Leithauser’s urgency, a cigarette-smoke swirl of notes that happens to hook harder than most anything else this year. “On the Water” pulses meditatively for its first two thirds before erupting into a whirlwind spiral of an outro. “Seven Years of Holidays (For Stretch)” acts like a propulsive waltz, taking brief respites for the choruses before pummeling back into a lost weekend narrative. “Postcards From Tiny Islands” is the inverse, small verses making way for choruses that come on like the spectacle of a circus rolling through town. And, reader: this is the first half of the album. By its close they’ve proven capable of bellowing the anthem of the year (“I Lost You”), of aching sincerity and passion (“Long Time Ahead of Us” and, God, “Canadian Girl”), of creating obvious emotional swells without the expected volume (“Red Moon”), and, as always, finding a balance between discordance and resolution.
This variation in the songcraft amid absolute adherence to a predetermined aesthetic attests to the band’s ability to craft a well-paced, engaging arc, an album as much attuned to its coherency as it is to being a springboard for a few spectacular singles. You & Me might feel overlong, lasting a hefty 50 minutes and fourteen tracks, but the band finally seems determined to match their grand ambitions with meticulous attention to the patience of the audience, loading the front end with a couple of anthems and juxtaposing the denser mid-pieces with upbeat love songs. Maybe this is further proof of their maturing, their clarity. Maybe these guys got some fucking humility, at last.
Good on them for that. And good for us, especially those who felt within this band’s previous releases the potential for a certain greatness. You & Me arches toward that point like all its predecessors but at last reaches the mark with finality and utter confidence, right there on big blistering “I Lost You.” It could be debated that with its smoothed edges You & Me is a bit innocuous for a band known to craft pillaging paeans to thick riffs and hardy yelling. Think of it as a new way to ravish: speaking softly and carrying a big stick: the Walkmen as utterly themselves as they’ve ever been, successfully self-aware and glowing with the confidence of all their past accomplishments, but still refreshingly new.