After hearing a couple of early tracks, “Wake Up” and “We’ve Been Had” I took an avid interest in The Walkmen, bought Bows + Arrows in 2004 after reading the reviews and became a dedicated fan based on the strength of this album, possibly still my favourite of their catalogue. Here, the songwriting is stronger than the more dirge-laden alcoholic sprawl of debut Everybody Who Pretended To Like Me Is Gone, a good album nonetheless, but Bows + Arrows brings the tunes and the confidence and pretty much sets the template for the Walkmen’s variety of stylings—slow burning atmospheric dreamy numbers, harder edged rockers, weird swingers, and dreary alcohol-sodden piano-tinged ballads. Or something like that. In any case, I feel there’s a consistency of good material across this album. They brought the dreary dirge back in force on their 2008 effort, You & Me, but here it was tempered with sweet melancholy and that nostalgic yearning thing, further evoked in song titles which connote the festive season such as “No Christmas While I’m Talking,” “The North Pole,” and “New Year’s Eve.” Mostly the lyrics revolve around lead singer Hamilton Leithauser’s personal relationships (whether real or imaginary) and often the songs are sung to a “you” figure. Given his raspy dragging voice, the accusatory and melancholy tone, and the New York setting it’s hard not to be reminded of a “Positively 4th Street” Dylan singing “You got a lotta nerve / To say you are my friend.”
As always, the sound on this recording remains the same lo-fi sort of DIY aesthetic we heard on the debut. That, in my opinion, is what makes The Walkmen a great band. They set up their own NYC loft-studio apparently and set about recording this album. So, lower the needle Bumstead…
What’s In It For Me?… is a strange but brilliant way to open. It feels more like a closing track with its slow woozy humming/warbling, the heavily processed guitar and organ sounds. The vocals are much more audible here: “What’s in it for me? / What’s in it for me? / I came here for a good time and you’re telling me to leave / But you don’t have to say it again, I heard you the first time.” So, album begins with the singer being asked to leave and that’s gonna be apparent on every song here. There’s a strange but quite beautiful twinkling shimmering use of guitar atmospherics that surge through some melancholy chord changes that, to my ears, evoke a cold snowy night. Not a long song. Lyrically it seems to set the theme for the whole album – the push-me-pull-you of human interaction always driven by a curious mix of desire and repulsion, and the distress that causes between difficult personalities.
The Rat… opens with a louder ringing sustained guitar chord as drums join in and bring the speed. The tension builds. Between the guitars and drums we have an intense loud ringing, a very fast melody before Leithauser’s voice comes rasping through the storm, complaining, “You’ve got a nerve to be asking a favor / You’ve got a nerve to be calling my number / I know we’ve been through this before / Can’t you hear me? / I’m calling out your name / Can’t you see me? / I’m pounding on your door.” And immediately I think of a suffering rat left out in the cold, and it’s somehow sad and funny at the same time, the way his voice pleads in that desperate rasp. Then the song sort of changes into its ‘chorus’ which is the following line repeated over: “When I used to go out / I would know everyone I saw / Now I go out alone / If I go out at all.” Often cited as the best song on the album, it definitely has the best tune probably because of its quite catchy melody and singalongable chorus coupled with the intense delivery. The organ plays along with the guitars (I think) in these screaming sustained lines, before a stuttering drumbeat takes the song out. Brilliant stuff.
No Christmas While I’m Talking… is all shimmering distorted dirty atmospherics, just a kind of dirge of noise which soon dissolves into something quite beautiful. No drums here, just Leithauser’s voice churning inside the strange and majestic noise, singing, “When I was told / You lied to me / I hung my head in shame / When I was told / You were cheating me / I bit my lip in pain.” These words are strung out, stretched line to line in the amazing way Leithauser has with his vocal phrasing. Despite all the minutiae of pretty guitar theatrics in the background that work to maintain atmosphere and echo effects, the song is a miserable thing, Leithauser sort of half threatening, “So back up / Back away” but then half pleading, “Do it one more time / Just for a little while.” The tune here is carried in the odd tonal changes and various guitar treatments and effects.
Little House Of Savages… a piercing note followed by this full on maelstrom of distorted ringing guitars and stuttering drum beat. Here Leithauser sings, “Somebody’s waiting for me at home / Somebody’s waiting for me at home / I should have known / I should have known” as though he knows he’s about to do the wrong thing, but will go ahead anyway. That he sings each line twice too is important to the effect of the song. Is he cheating on someone here? Later we get a chorus of sorts, “’Cause you can run and have your fun / But don’t come around when she gets home,” as though he’s talking to himself. Dunno. Quite a good tune. The intensity falls away after the opening gambit and turns more into a percussion-driven thing.
My Old Man… more chiming guitar notes repeated and an almost military-precise drum beat, with Leithauser’s squawking through the noisy murk, which, as I’ve said before, sometimes causes a bit of listener fatigue in the way the instruments bleed noisily into each other. Couple that with Leithauser’s straining voice and the whole thing is a rowdy slightly exhausting experience. Here’s another song seemingly torn between conflicted feelings: “You’re an old friend we both know / I could take you out.” Does he get into a lot of fights? Maybe he does in his own head at least. Some kind of realization follows: “I see it now / I see it slow / I see it now / I see it now.” So here we have another ‘relationship’ song with the same kind of problem—some feeling of immense frustration wrought by the contrast between being let down by someone you love or like, and this is always borne out in Walkmen songs by the contrast between the forward momentum of the guitars and drums and the resistance to that momentum you hear in Leithauser’s voice. This is why this band have come to prominence in my mind. They’re a difficult band, sometimes difficult to listen to, but they manage to capture real human emotions in an honest way, and how the music supports this so well is a real melding of form and content, making their ‘pop’ art in the way that so much commercial music simply isn’t.
138th Street… starts with a loud ringing strummed guitar, lots of echo, a noise far in the background like the floor being beaten, and here’s another song for a friend: “I hear that you got yourself a house / And all your friends you finally figured out /
But you go out in the night / Til you got no place to go.” The verse ends with, “Someday when you turn around / You’ll take a wife, and start a life / It won’t be long.” Mostly the music is just that lone electric guitar, a few notes being strummed and plucked and that low roar of a distant bass drum rumble. The song is slow, there’s a second verse, presumably sung to the same friend who seems to be drinking too much because of problems at home. An observational kind of song.
The North Pole… is very raw sounding, bashed drums, piercing guitar sound and Leithauser’s ripped voice straining against itself: “Everybody knows / That’s the way it goes,” and “I’ve seen you with your new boyfriend / It’s funny how you look at him.” The noise all winds down into this beautiful part with twinkly piano and high pitched organ sound: “Your Monday morning train takes you uptown / Your Friday evening bus brings you back down.” I don’t really get the U2 comparisons these guys get in the press, but then I’ve never listened to early U2 albums like Boy or War. This piece is more atmospheric and straight-ahead driving with occasional nods to a pretty melody.
Hang On, Siobhan… is gorgeous, all submerged dreamy piano and a boomy drum sound far off and yet close at the same time, as though there’s a door between the mike and the drummer. “I’ll be back tomorrow / That is if you’re here and you promise to keep it / Between you and me.” Here we have one of Leithauser’s best ‘drunken’ performances. “It’s four in the morning / The bars are unloading / I go to the window / Pull down the shade / You’re calling me back / Yeah but that was no good / I got tired of it / Day after day after day.” And then the title lyric, “So hang on Siobhan / You’re a mystery to me” and the music goes all dreamy again, with that rumbling tinny drum sound, an organ line, and faint piano notes. Another favourite.
New Year’s Eve… is what I think of as one of those drunken woozy swinging numbers with all the clackers and tambourine percussion, the double notes being hit on the piano, the one-two one-two bass line and Leithauser’s more spirited festive-sounding vocal, despite the maudlin but hopeful lyrics: “The music’s loud, in your room / Turn it down / There’s a neighbour / Who can’t take it anymore / I’ll take your hand / In another one night stand / There’s a lot for us to figure out.” The tune is lovely, moves through a couple of changes but remains piano-heavy as it sways out of the room…
Thinking Of A Dream I Had… is back to the roar and speed of “The Rat”. “I’m waiting on a subway line / I’m waiting for a train to arrive / I’m thinking of a dream I had.” This is another of my favourites. The guitars are sort of messy and fast and indistinct, blurry, a tambourine in there, really fast drumming and in between the fast bits we get these breaks—a drumless bridge, while Leithauser sings “Don’t lead me on / Doooon’t,” his “don’ts” getting more desperate and squawky. The other instrumental break part is awesome with this shimmering organ part going all eerie and sci-fi, sounding like absolute magic. “And when you’re coming around / You’ll be sorry for the things you said / No one, no one speaks to me that way / I’ll be hanging from the ceiling fan.” Great raucous number with a good tune and a difficult lyric.
Bows + Arrows… is one note ringing away in time with the same raw bashed drum sound we’ve heard earlier, and this awesome vocal, as if he’s reaching for a falsetto but failing. “Come on, come on let’s have a song / The morning sun is soon to come / We don’t have time to linger on / There comes a time, there comes a time / To make it right when I was wrong / And someday girl we’ll get along.” He sings these lines high up in his throat somewhere, a touch hysterical, as if to say, “I can’t believe this is happening.” Then the whole mood changes to a low organ drone, the guitars die out, the cymbals and drums continue to crash around his voice, “So we’ll keep this up as friends this time
Nothing’s wrong / I’ll stand up as I’ll shake your hand / We’ll be alright.” The song moves through this same change several times, between loud ringing guitars and that moody hum, and the song finishes on this line: “Someday girl we’ll get along.” And that pretty much sums it up. This dude struggles to get along with people and sometimes it’s his own fault and other times it’s not and he can never quite figure out how to reconcile this dilemma.
Certainly this is difficult music to write about whether in real time or not. There’s quite a lot more going on than I’ve captured above. Nearly every song here has a reasonably memorable tune. I noticed there was less piano on these songs than I’d thought. The lyrics tend to be understandable at one level but when you listen closely they become a whole lot more ambiguous. The subtleties probably don’t matter too much because the feeling, as I’ve noted above, is carried quite well in the music. This is why The Walkmen rock and why this was one of my most-listened-to albums of the decade 2000-2009. It’s not a hard listen, but nor is it an easy one which is why you can enjoy it on several different levels. They would turn the punk tap on a little harder for their follow-up A Hundred Miles Off.