The Walkmen: Heaven
David Byrne once described heaven as a place where nothing ever happens. The heaven Hamilton Leithauser sings about in the title track of The Walkmen’s seventh album is a similarly uneventful place, and he’s willing to fight to keep it that way.
Over a robust power-pop melody played on ringing guitars and driven by a rhythm section that hits like a life-or-death concern, Leithauser pleads for family stability, asking that “his best friend” never leave him, so that “our children will always hear / romantic tales of distant years” as they grow old together. It’s hardly a sentiment anyone would’ve expected from The Walkmen a decade ago, when they started out as young, hard-drinking New Yorkers out for a good time on 2002’s Everyone Who Pretended To Like Me Is Gone. On Heaven, they’ve left that behind for lives that that are quieter, straighter, and a lot scarier. They’re fathers now, and there’s so much more to lose. “Remember remember / all we fight for,” Leithauser sings in the song’s closing moments, turning a personal devotion into an anthemic rallying cry.
“Dad rock” is an epithet used by snarky people looking to denigrate bands that conform to rock tradition. (It also takes those dastardly dads down a peg or two.) But Heaven is a dad-rock record in a different, truer sense. It’s an album of big adult themes: the weight of responsibility, the realization that romantic infatuation is fleeting and probably bullshit, the power of fidelity and loyalty to outlast momentary sensation and passion. And it dispenses with them in an ordinary, everyday way, like taking out the trash or changing the baby’s diapers. For The Walkmen, heaven is a place where the momentous has become mundane, and vice versa.
The dad-rock aspect of Heaven is telegraphed by the band photo on the back cover, where the members pose with their young children on their laps. The photo will be a red flag for those who perceive any sign of “maturity” (or a baby pic in the liner notes) as a death-knell for a rock band. But those people probably already wrote off The Walkmen, as the band moved in a more thoughtful and less “rocking” direction over the course of its last three records. It’s been years since The Walkmen conjured the piss and vinegar of “The Rat,” from 2004’s Bows + Arrows, and yet everything the band does still in some way gets compared to that song. Meanwhile, The Walkmen have eased confidently in the opposite direction.
For 2010’s masterful Lisbon, The Walkmen labored for two years in a monastic quest to pare their music down to the barest of essentials. Because the songs on that album are so spare, almost to the point of appearing to suggest sounds rather than actually produce them, every musical gesture counts. When a pack of New Orleans funeral horns suddenly materialize in the middle of the soul-crushing ballad “Stranded,” it’s as if The Walkmen discovered a secret way to commune with the dead.
For Heaven, The Walkmen are back among the living, returning to “the five guys playing in a room” approach of their early records while maintaining the contemplative tone of their more recent work. With the assistance of producer Phil Ek, The Walkmen have one again made themselves sound muscular and feisty on the film-noir blues of “Witch” and the whirring “Nightingales,” but not in the interest of returning to their misspent youth. “Heartbreaker” opens with one of the band’s classically clanky, furious guitar riffs, but Leithauser begs off from dishing out any party-guy prurience. “I’m not your heartbreaker,” he spits. “These are the good years / the best we’ll ever know.”
The Walkmen have always radiated a world-weariness that seemed to age them prematurely. But actually growing older has made their music warmer and more optimistic. (“I love hope,” Leithauser sings at one point, with disarming sincerity.) On the quiet emotional powerhouse “Line By Line,” Leithauser seemingly addresses a long list of questions from an inquisitive child: “The honest man survives / how do you know it / I just know it,” he sings over a solitary guitar line, insisting that he’s right because he has to be right. Later, on the shimmering folk-rock tune “Song For Leigh,” he offers more fatherly advice: “Patience will keep you alive.”
Patience has indeed been a virtue for The Walkmen during their recent trilogy of “grown-ass man” records. Crawling through the sewer of adolescence and early adulthood in order to achieve adult contentment isn’t exactly considered “fun” subject matter in rock music. But on Heaven, Leithauser sounds liberated by no longer having to care only about himself and his misadventures. “If you want my heart, take my heart,” he sings, like a lullaby, on the lilting opening track “We Can’t Be Beat.” “All the kids are laughing / I’m laughing too.” After 10 years and seven albums, Heaven finds The Walkmen in a better place.