The Walkmen, Lisbon, 2010

Lisbon didn’t leave a big impression on me at first. I sensed quickly that I much preferred it to the irritating You & Me  because I could hear the melody and song craft. I guess Walkmen albums are slow growers though, because after playing Lisbon on and off a lot since I got it in 2010 I never quite reached a sweet spot with it, until now, and at last I’m really enjoying it like I never have before. You & Me simply failed to ignite me—even after four years there was almost nothing that stuck, but Lisbon has finally proven to be a truly wonderful record. I guess I like it because it brings back the atmosphere, while eschewing the miasmic histrionics of A Hundred Miles Off and You & Me for a more generally quieter and thoughtful sound with lots of great hooks. The lyrics too are more pared down.

As noted on quite a few interweb reviews, there is a Sun Records influence on Lisbon which is something I would have been oblivious of if I hadn’t read about it. But conscious of it now, I can hear it quite clearly. It’s not something you might have ordinarily picked up on, given the indie, noisy, scratchy nature of the Walkmen’s music, but certainly on the more mellow tracks it’s discernable, as well as in Leithauser’s croonier style of singing. He no longer sounds (a) like he’s competing with his band to be heard and (b) like he’s ripping his throat apart to wrench these words and emotions out of himself. This is good because when he chooses to sing rather than squawk, he sounds amazing. So, without further ado, let’s visit the capital of Portugal…

Juveniles… is a sad song about losing a lover with lovely poetic lyrics: “You’re with someone else / Tomorrow night / Doesn’t matter to me / ‘Cause there’s a sun dying into the hill … / … Let these dead leaves dry in the sun / I’ll be up and gone.” The softly pounding rhythm makes the song, along with that delicate electric guitar part, plucking out a stoic kind of melody. The lyrics are all perfectly audible. The melody rises into something more than itself, dramatic, which, when the second verse begins, by dropping out suddenly, only makes it more effective. Leithauser’s singing is vastly improved on this album from his incessant yelping on A Hundred Miles Off (a pretty good album, but…). The aesthetic on Lisbon is notably even more minimalist than ever—they keep the bare essentials of rock’n’roll intact. The song ends with Leithauser chanting, “You’re one of us / Or one of them,” over several times. The cymbals crash around the twining guitar part. Pretty great opening track.

Angela Surf City… again, we open with the bare minimum, bass drum, tappity rhythm, and twitchy ringing guitar, before the speed builds and the whole band join to bring the song up into some energetic rush of noise, as Leithauser sings about “Angela,” who “holds a grudge over nothing.” When he sings “Let’s go up highbeam,” it sounds like a command to the band to swoosh themselves into windy action, like a small tornado of noise. “I was holding on to you / For a lack of anything to do,” sings Leithauser, dragging that “I” out into one long syllable. Great song, one of the noisier ones here, a nod back perhaps, to albums past.

Follow The Leader… is Walkmen noise-experimentation. Really fast jittery ringing guitars, and inaudible lyrics because of the excess amounts of reverb used on the guitars. It’s so echoey it even sounds live, with the singer standing halfway across the room throwing his voice at the mike. It’s a short number, bit of an anomaly really, but also a kind of throwback, as if they wanted to say, “we’re not about to go all Daniel Lanois on you.” Not much of a song though.

Blue As Your Blood… love that simple rubberband guitar sound, just two notes twanged out in quick repetition, with a simple clattered out drumbeat. It’s quite a pace they have going, although Leithauser provides a dreamy sort of vocal that floats above it all: “I’d give you all my love / But my heart itself is broken / How many nights must lumber by / I sit alone and I wonder why.” They enhance the jaunty melody with a shimmery synth tone which works wonders. Eventually the louder guitars join, cymbals crash, the volume increases slightly. Leithauser seems to appeal to “Lord” a lot on Lisbon. “The Lord came down and said to me / Throw off your worries and be at peace … The sky above / Is blue as your blood / In a hazy, lazy daydream.” An affecting piece, pretty good tune. Really like this.

Stranded… is freakin’ awesome with its use of swoozy horns, like kelp swaying in the sea, kind of slowed down to create a sleepy anthemic feel. Love the opening line: “Throw another dime in me my friend / And I’ll sing a song I know for thee / If you don’t want me you can tell me I’m the bigger man here / Oh it’s true.” There’s a pause, as the horns stop and the singing becomes very croony. The whole album has a much slower, more intimate feel than previous albums, and is generally ‘quieter’. In this song, Leithauser asks, “why does the rain fall cold / When I’m stranded and starry-eyed?” Indeed, I think I can empathize. Horns take us out on the windy motif. There’s much weather in this song. A favourite, loving it.

Victory… is all clattery drumsticks and a percussive guitar part creating a high-edged teetering on the building ledge feel. It could easily have devolved into a You & Me kind of dirge, but instead they give us a real chorus this time, reasonably memorable. “Victory / Right beside me, yeah.” Leithauser has blood all over his hands, suggesting that it’s been a hard won victory, perhaps not such a deserved or happy one. It’s kind of like looking back and thinking, hang on, “was that really worth it?” It gets quite noisy and thumpy in the chorus, almost becoming a little draggy on the old auditory hammer and anvil.

All My Great Designs… again, that ‘rubberband’ guitar sound, almost a wood-like quality to it, a very pensive kind of melody, a heavy beat, and an amazing vocal. This is a song all about conscience. “It will haunt you night after night / Haunt you night after night.” At one pont the singing stops for two bars, we get an “ahhh laaa laaa” chorus part, rising quite beautifully, a momentary confusion perhaps, or momentary realization. “You will know where / You’ve been running around / You will know when / You’ve been out on your own.” The melody is simple but the unusual instrumentation makes this quite unique. Love the dreamy sequence in the middle, while a single guitar note climbs like a vine up through the middle of it. The rhythm here is great too. Another lovely song.

Woe Is Me… is by far the poppiest song here, but more than just pop, it brings the Walkmen sound to the fore, with drums and scratchy ringing guitar part, with a pure pop vocal: “There’s a girl that you should know / She was mine not so long ago
Had my number and we fell in love / She put me under and I got lost,” followed by the simple but neat chorus: “Woe is me / Woe is me.” It’s a short chorus, but you can imagine a whole hall full of fans yelling out in unison, fists aloft, “Woe is meeee.” I can hear that submerged piano sound, although it may actually be a guitar, it’s so blurry. Great chiming guitar parts in this song, melodic as nuts. Brilliant.

Torch Song… and for the last three tracks we revert to the quiet, emotive feel, here with a percussively ringing guitar to open, followed by that pure 50s Sun records sound, the backing ‘mens’ choir providing a very low rumble of harmony. Leithauser laments, “If I had known the graceful song I should know / To slow down all the madness / I would have sung a whispered melody / To calm you and keep you close,” and you can’t help wondering if he’s singing to himself. Like this song seems to wash away the past, but, “I don’t know the tune / It’s a burden on my sorry soul / I don’t have a clue / It’s a weight upon my empty skull.” And so it’s a lament for the past, for what’s gone by, hence the use of a 50s soft cooing aesthetic, really pretty stuff.

While I Shovel The Snow… is my favourite here, awfully emotional, incredibly beautiful. Just this gorgeous twinkling, simple entangled guitar melody and Leithauser with an impassioned vocal, one of his best, and it’s sad, almost tear-jerky sad. “As I look in back of me / See a shape beside the walkway / Half of my life I’ve been watching / Half of my life I’ve been waking up,” and we learn that “there’s no life like the slow life.” Amen to that. “For now I’ll take my time / For now I can’t be bothered.” This reminds me of Thom Yorke’s “hey man, slow down” on “Airbag.” The vocal melody is gorgeous, just perfect really. This comes close to being my favourite Walkmen song ever, though I have a few of those I suppose, “Wake Up,” “On The Water,” “The Rat” and several more off Bows +Arrows.

Lisbon… is yet another quiet affair. I really like the Walkmen when they keep it this simple, it’s much more effective than song after song of screeching jangle and noise that spills over, messing up the structure. The tune is slight this time, but it seems to be a song more about its lyrics which are a series of glimpses and hints, a meditation on time spent in Lisbon perhaps, but I don’t get much of a solid picture, the lines are a little too disparate. Leithauser says he “speaks[s] the language,” and that “the life we lead / Came gradually,” but is it a happy one? Something about “a bitter lime / Will do us fine / To kill the taste.” It’s a slow tentative kind of sound, a little world-weary, a double w-phrase which works well to sum up the Walkmen sound.

So, that was Lisbon, a much more melodic record, slower, quieter, more thoughtful, more sorrowful too, not quite as drunken or pissed off or frustrated or fractured as earlier efforts. It sounds like a maturing, an awful thing to say I suppose, but true. And there are melodies and odd little tones here that keep running around your head long after the record’s been sleeved and filed. They’ll be releasing a new one this year (2012). Can’t wait to hear it. I’ve got a feeling it’s going to be even better still.

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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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2 Responses to The Walkmen, Lisbon, 2010

  1. Eugene says:

    Your reviews of The Walkmen are very good. But there is no review for “Heaven”. Please do it :)

    • hey, thanks. I always worried these write-ups were so long they’d bore the socks of most people. yeah, I’ve been meaning to do Heaven for a long time and now I have Black Hours, We’re All Young Together and Liberation! to add to the pile (all three are pretty nice albums too).

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