The Walkmen, You & Me, 2008

There’s two things in relation to this record I really don’t get. The first is this: You & Me received a lot of rave reviews in 2008. I wonder if any of those reviewers are still listening to it? If they were to do so, I doubt many of them would still support their 4 or 5 star reviews. I can’t help feeling that there was a general late decade rush in the 00s to jump on The Walkmen’s bandwagon and say, “hey, our magazine loves these guys too,” when in fact, they’d just released their worst record. I know as much as anyone that writing a record review after two or three hopeful spins can result in misplaced enthusiasm, but back in 2008 I played this over and over and over…and nothing happened. It was utterly unmemorable. Was it at least enjoyable in the moment? No. It sounded like tossed off, lazy songwriting, like they were trading atmospherics and reverb for structure. Even the lyrics read like dull, literal poetry. Many reviews called this ‘their finest effort’. Ha, bollocks.

The second thing that flabbergasts me is this: Back in 2008 reviewers praised “Red Moon” a lot. Dusted Magazine seemed to think “In The New Year” was their best song ever. Fans of the band listed “I Lost You,” or “The Blue Route” as the album’s best track. But no one, not one reviewer ever mentions the single, “On The Water.” I can’t fathom this. “On The Water” is incredible. It’s incredible in its own right, but coupled with the video it stands heads and shoulders above the rest of the album. Opinions are funny things eh? Why should mine have any more credence? Well, I do at least represent the seasoned Walkmen fan, and not some half-assed reviewer catching up on their back catalogue in order to churn out 500 words on You & Me for a deadline. But actually, I just love a good tune.

“On The Water” in my mind is the best example of a slightly new sound on this album, of which there are unfortunately only three examples. “Donde Esta La Playa” and maybe “Canadian Girl” are the other two. These are highly atmospheric songs driven by a fluid, soft bass guitar and a quiet/loud aesthetic that sets them apart from all the erratic stuff. Further, they’re the only three songs that have tunes that seem more complex than the one-major-change between verse and chorus of an otherwise merely likable song such as “In The New Year.” The rest of it drifts by without much spirit while Leithauser seems uninterested in editing his lyrics. Too often it sounds like the vocals are being force fitted to the guitar parts as though songwriter and vocalist were working completely independently.

Here’s an irony though: I normally find myself in concord with Uncut magazine’s tastes in certain American indie music, and of the 19 reviews of You & Me available on Metacritic, Uncut gives it the lowest rating – 2/5 stars – but for all the wrong reasons. They denigrate Leithauser’s ‘Dylan-complex’ and slag off the “igloo” sound, when in fact these are the reasons most of us love the Walkmen. This suggests that Uncut have also missed the boat in their attempt not to jump on the Walkmen’s bandwagon. Confused? I was, until I decided that as a fanatic observer of the band’s trajectory, I may as well say straight up, that this album kills my joy – much of it bores me to distraction.

Donde Esta La Playa… as noted above this first track really grabs me with its submerged “igloo” bass and guitar sound and the pattered drumming, or as Leithauser puts it, “The tom toms are beating on.” This moody dark mysterious vibe is soon pierced by a typical reverb-struck guitar solo. The song is an ode to holiday romance, a girl who seems to have led him on, a ‘player’ – she’s married. “I know that you’re married, rings on your hand / So I didn’t stay ’til the end / I don’t need a Christmas card / You don’t need to write.” The melody is an odd thing, but I like the spookiness of it. There’s no chorus either.

Flamingos… a strange one minute long lo-fi guitar ditty, as sludgy as wet snow.

On The Water… and again, that same fluid very low bass guitar sound and drum patter, which makes me think of Radiohead’s “Kid A” momentarily. The song builds gradually into something quite magnificent. “All the windows are glowing / The branches bending low / The skyline is swinging / Rocking back and forth / Walking down this dirt road / Watching at the sky / It’s all I can do.” The rhythm hustles along with a low rollicking feel, and the guitars ring in with their reverbed sound while Leithauser’s voice becomes more desperate, with some quite wonderful “ahh” yelping just as the whole thing builds into an intense noise with this insane whistling sound that makes it sound like a horror movie. This is just brilliant. Again, it has a deeply mysterious, almost frightening sound about it and that’s why I love it so much. It haunts. Song is about someone (a ‘you’) who loves you so much they can’t see your messed up side.

In The New Year… “I’m still living at the old address / And I’m waiting on the weather / That I know will pass.” Seems ‘the new year’ is a regular theme in Leithauser lyrics. Indeed this isn’t a bad song at all. It has a stop start kind of feel, between the simple chugging guitar sound and the noisy drums. There’s a distinctly tinny quality to the sound which is surely deliberate as well as a neat organ in here and a fairly spirited vocal. All the critics have suggested that You & Me is the first time we can hear Leithauser’s vocals clearly – not true at all. I’ve nearly always been able to make out his vocals if I pay attention – what’s difficult however is to follow the lyrics without a lyric sheet. He throws you off with his oblique lines and, well, generally I just lose interest. If anything, the lyrics on this song are quite hard to make out with the histrionic guitar sound and caveman rhythm. But at least this song has a tune…

Seven Years Of Holidays… unlike this one. An unusual military type beat keeps the rhythm section interesting while Leithauser yell-sings his lyrics beneath the reverb. This is the perfect example of a track where the lyrics just seem made up on the spot to suit whatever structure the band came up with. There’s practically zero melody, it all seems too random, and uninspiring. Having said all that, I still do enjoy the tinny lo-fi sound of the band. In this song, Leithauser sings to someone called “Eugene” telling him, “I’m lost.” Does ‘seven years of holidays’ refer to the seven years since the Walkmen’s debut album? Most of these songs seem to be about travel and holidays. Ergo this next song…

Postcards From Tiny Islands… a shimmering drum patter/clatter, a spidery guitar part etching pointillist jangle into the spaces between Leithauser’s voice, before the song crashes into its base rhythm. “Here’s to you and the stars above / The half-moon in your pretty eyes / And here’s to you and the setting sun / The barmen and their sorry songs / I’ll be drunk before too long.” The tone here is one of withered cynicism, tired, too much alcohol. Finishes with the line, “Oh holidays are flying by.” The structure of the song feels like a mess. There are few or no choruses in any of these songs, which is fine, but when the song just changes course too many times without a single hook to hang your ears on, well, I dunno, it just grates after a while.

Red Moon… has quite a nice evocative, nostalgic kind of melody played on guitar and piano: “The red moon is rising behind ya / The ocean is pounding away / I held up a light to the smoke / But the wind blows, blows it away.” We get horns trumpeting drearily and sleepily in the background. Leithauser seems to be pining to “be home by your side.” I have to agree that this song is better than I’d given it credit for. Dreary horns can be great (I’m thinking of that freaky track “We Suck Young Blood” from Radiohead’s Hail To The Thief album) but once again, the meandering horn parts seem only to play the same two or three lingering notes, leaving the song once again, mostly hookless. If there’s a melody here, it’s carried in the awfully slow rhythm: “I miss you / I miss you / There’s no one else / I do / I do.” Still, at least this song isn’t drowned in prose.

Canadian Girl… is classic Walkmen with dreamy tinkly submerged piano sound, jazzy drumming, jabbing soft staccato guitar parts, a real archaic aesthetic, woodblock, and a quite lovely vocal. “So take my hand / The players in the band / They can always find / Always find some number that we know.” This too seems to be about holiday romance, the brevity of it, the uselessness of bothering to keep in touch. In that sense, again, this is deeply cynical and weathered, world-weary, can’t be bothered kind of stuff. That feel is carried in the rickety instrumentation which again, has that low bass sound rumbling away and horns blaring in from the background to keep things interesting. The tune is a slight thing however, making this not quite as good as anything on their Bows + Arrows album despite many reviewers claiming it does. If this was a survey I’d be ticking the “Strongly disagree” box.

Four Provinces… has a neat clattery rhythm effect and the standard ringing guitar sound doing nothing special in particular. This song is sung to “Leah” in a refrain that goes, “Hey, Leah / Am I getting through?” We get a shuffly rhythmical instrumental section before the vocalist joins again in his alternately bored and spirited voice. This is one of those numbers where there’s a rather dull verse section followed by an interesting instrumental section, but there’s just no tune to speak of, and no real decent dynamic that makes any sense. Ennui. That’s what I get from all of this. And it may be that ennui’s what they’re after, but even ennui, I say, can be made lovable. And this isn’t. This is just tired.

Long Time Ahead Of Us… in which Leithauser apostrophizes the moonlight: “Oh moonlight / Help me sleep / There’s far too much weight on my mind / The stars in the night sky / They worry me.” Musically this is very subdued, very much a middle of the night song. Again, submersion is the key aesthetic, rumbling drumming, humming bass, buried guitar sound, subterranean, sleepy, faintly whining organ. No chorus, no tune. Some quite cool horns blowing in at the end. A song in which you can imagine Leithauser singing out of his window to the moon, but its complete lack of a melody renders it quickly forgettable.

The Blue Route… opens with a more spirited guitar tune, and a rhythmic vocal: “You used to be some kind of joke / And all the depths you’ve come to know / You wandered down an open road and you kept going.” And when he hits the ‘chorus’ part which is simply the line, “What happened to you?” repeated three times, it does feel, once again, very much like Bows + Arrows material, sans the lovely tune. I don’t know why these songs don’t hook, but they just don’t. It’s like Bows + Arrows weakened right down by ennui and cynicism and disinterest, although ‘disinterest’ isn’t correct because it’s clear that Leithauser is attempting to engage somebody with his words. But there’s a disconnect between the vocals and the music in my opinion. It doesn’t add up to more than the sum of its parts. This churns along with a nice enough rhythm, the standard histrionic gesture, but fades out and leaves us indifferent.

New Country… is just a rubber band guitar sound climbing up and down, some other reverb-heavy guitar note repeating insistently, and a forlorn vocal over top of these two instruments. Another travel song, apparently: “Oh, maybe I’ll go see the world / There’s plenty of places to see.” But he’s ever so lonely. No bass, no drums. Not a bad song at all, but yet again, the melody is weak and the lyrics, discernable though they are, contain no memorable lines. It’s hard to care what half of these songs are about because of the prosaic nature of the lyrics.

I Lost You… “Drive on, drive on / The highway bright and long / The river overflowing / The houses burning down / Drive on, drive on / The engine hums along.” It does hum along, but that’s all it does. This gets louder, builds with that churning guitar/organ combo sound, rhythm section drops out, ringing guitar, dynamic changes but utterly lacking all syncopation to create any kind of memorable melody and an increasingly hysterical vocal performance that fails to ignite. “I lost you.” Indeed you did, Hamilton.

If Only It Were True… starts with promise, as most every song here does – they all begin with a unique sound, but then they rarely go anywhere. There’s always a watered down tune, a ringing guitar, a wasted aesthetic, but it all drags, drags, drags on the listener’s attention. In this song, Leithauser’s “head is all full of dreams / It’s nothing new.” And no, it is nothing new. It’s a squawking voice aimlessly fitting words in between equally aimless guitar parts.

I’m sorry, but The Walkmen just aren’t good enough a band to be able to carry almost a whole album of tuneless songs. A band like the Dirty Three for example can create some masterfully wandering songs because they know how to hit the right notes, but it seems to me that when your lead singer is so determined to sing in his weariest of voices, you’d better have something else to make up for it – a tune that is, no matter how weird, a tune, an atmosphere, something. Instead we get boredom handed to us on a red-vinyl platter. Perhaps this is why I find “On The Water” so thrilling – it’s the only real standout track on an album full of half-assedness. Once again, what on earth were all those reviewers praising? Or was 2008 simply the fashionable year to pretend you liked the Walkmen? In 2010, they’d make a better return to form with the far more enjoyable Lisbon.

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About Alan Bumstead Vinyl Reviews

Alan Bumstead is a music fanatic who humbly adds confusion to the world with a string of album reviews written during real-time-listening in a stream-of-consciousness style, then edited for spelling, punctuation, flow and grammar. Apart from an additional introductory paragraph, the writing is improvised in time with the music. There is no re-writing. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- In his book Moving To Higher Ground Wynton Marsalis says, "Because jazz musicians improvise under the pressure of time, what's inside comes out pure. It's like being pressed to answer a question before you have a chance to get your lie straight. The first thought is usually the truth." I like to think that's what Alan Bumstead's all about.
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