A few weeks ago, songs from the Walkmen’s Heaven started leaking. "Southern Heart,” the gentle centerpiece on their seventh album, was leaked via a poorly-recorded boot from a Dutch radio show. These low-bitrate leaks are the norm for bigger bands these days, and usually they’re just a diversionary nuisance, but something about this crappy version grabbed me. Despite the whooshing background noise, “Southern Heart” still maintained its romanticism. Or maybe it was because of all that noise: the Walkmen, divorced from time and place, sounding like they’re being cued up by Wolfman Jack on an interstellar border blaster.
This kind of bigger-than-life feeling is what the Walkmen have been wrestling with for over a decade. Even with their ups and downs, they’ve managed to bottle that spine-tingling sensation and uncork it with nearly every album. Heaven is no exception. The Walkmen’s long-term solidness is decidedly un-rock and roll, but as we’ve seen with Spoon, consistency can be cool, too.
The group has grown up, sounding less like the emotional hurricanes that recorded “The Rat” and more like elder statesmen, but their newfound calm isn’t that surprising. Their refined style hasn’t changed much from the early days, though it’s streaked with grey here and there. “I was the Duke of Earl, the Duke of Earl, but it couldn’t last / I was the Pony Express, but I ran out of gas,” Hamilton Leithauser croons on album opener “We Can’t Be Beat.” Acoustic guitar and harmonies—including those of Fleet Fox Robin Pecknold—back him up most of the way, and the directness of the track—and the album—is striking. If Lisbon was the sound of the Walkmen in the grips of a European romance—all fizzy guitars and sparkling reverb—Heaven, oddly enough, puts their feet back on firmer ground. It’s sumptuously recorded, and the intimacy of the room becomes an instrument itself. Indeed, the Walkmen have used the studio unlike any of their peers over the past decade.
They’ve become the embodiment of “stately indie-rock” largely through their unfussy arrangements. The strings that show up at the end of “Line By Line” nudge that song into “Greatest Hits” territory—seriously, how impeachable will that collection be someday? “Southern Heart” is another immediate inclusion, not just for the brilliantly-simple melody but also Leithauser’s lyrics. His description of a bourbon-blooded Southern family is as impressionistic as Paul Maroon’s guitar, which can either color the edges with subtle flourishes or create a wall of excitement and tension, as he does on the punch-drunk “Nightingales.” While drummer Matt Barrick doesn’t get to truly explode like he’s done on past releases, he still has a great intuition for what a song rhythmically needs. His zydeco-like shuffle on “The Witch” perfectly fuels the song’s organ-driven humidity, and it becomes an easy standout on an album full of them.
The individual compositions on Heaven all sound similar to one another, but they feel like different members of a big family or recurring characters in a small village. Well-worn, well-defined, Heaven is the work of band with nothing left to prove. Leave it to the Walkmen to turn even that sentiment into something so effortlessly cool.
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