We start to worry when a great artist ceases to be an element — when there seems to be something pushing against each successive album, to the point where they can no longer rest on the virtues of the first impression. Rather than squeezing “underwater pianos” into a sentence, the cool, round, icy keyboard progressions that drove “We’ve Been Had” and “Stop Talking” from Everyone Who Pretended To Like Me Is Gone were as solid a confection as this pop/rock fan has ever swooned to. But The Walkmen never let themselves become gimmicky or rote as they went on. At this point in my life, I’ve never seen a mightier band, more capable of winning over new fans again and again with each subsequent release. Ten years, seven albums, and almost all of them flawless (almost doesn’t seem fair to include the fun yet fair covers album) and completely elemental. Nothing’s ever out of place on a Walkmen record. Worst case, you’re just not in the mood to hang with it. Like the best bands, they have their place and don’t always have to vie for supremacy.
With Heaven, I’ve realized that this is a band that pours a lot into their unique brand of dramatic, moody rock music. Dour poses and Dylan-esque, cigarette-y verbiage abounded before, and now they’re stalwart lions of lost love regained. It’s like they’re daring to be resigned when they’re only feeling more and more like a band that belongs in the fabric of all that’s solid. A lot of the same coolness is still there. Leithauser’s harried croon is a voice that loves itself and knows it has a rightful place. It’s so hungry that it’s sometimes tough to absorb. But that cocky crow of his now seems less distracting than ever, as it keenly bends dulcet melodies into your endorphin-craving brain. It’s easy to feel a sympathetic gratitude listening to this sun-peaked, warmth-imbuing baker’s dozen here in crazy, confounding ol’ 2012. The band have subtly continued to mature as players, really letting every single instrument breathe. It’s thrilling to feel all the hooks in this thing; one gets to feeling all Hellraisery, exploding with joy everywhichway.
Heaven is one of those unmistakable ‘embarassment of riches’ sort of affairs. The more time I’ve spent with it, the more unstoppable it has become. The exquisitely dusty, sparse “Southern Heart” feels almost like an outtake from Leonard Cohen’s first, the refrain “tell me again how you loved all the men you were after” perfectly echoing that album’s droll, knowing stillness. Those warbly keyboard sounds may’ve been left behind, but the slamming organ stabs of the “The Witch” make you almost forget. The Walkmen have changed, but they’ve kept that wistful beauty that’s so evocative it’s no wonder their songs keep popping up everwhere. The title track is an easy go-to for something energizing and heartening, a reminder that lyricism can shine all the brighter when set against more impressionistic lines. And perhaps “Heaven” is a sad song too, suggesting that positivity is most effective when one is reflecting.
So while this new Walkmen isn’t exactly a new Walkmen, it does much to revitalize one’s ardor for the wistful maelstroms they ply so well. People who keep harping on “The Rat” or “We’ve Been Had” drive me kinda nuts; these are great songs, but they never stopped making them. (“Thinking of a Dream I Had,” “Emma Get Me a Lemon,” and “On The Water” come to mind for a start.) The Walkmen don’t bother with filler, even if the song is almost a glance. All I can say to the harpies is: dig deeper. There are countless other tunes that are just as synergistic and mix-worthy. Even their non-album tracks are vital (the most recent being the swoony “The House You Made”). There are few bands making music this uniquely moving and accessible, and definitely fewer that can safely say they’re getting better 10 years into doing it. This reviewer, for one, is exceedingly relieved and thankful for this.