Although the Walkmen have been around for 10 years and continue to receive a decent amount of press, their records have never commanded the over zealous accolades that grace (mar?) the websites of tastemakers. Sepia-tinged photographs from their upcoming record “Heaven” highlight the domesticity of the band members, dapper in their three-piece suits, smiling at their wives and children. This is a band of middle-aged family men: their lead singer, Hamilton Leithauser, wails in remembrance of his youth and long-lost loves, while the band provides a mournful, anxious beat to accompany his voice. They may not have the innovative spirit or impeccable branding of, say, Jack White and his various initiatives, and they don’t get into Twitter battles with their contemporaries or announce rehab stints via Facebook, but they put out impeccable records every two years and slowly but surely sell out shows across the country.
There is a reason why you’ll find a generous selection of songs by the Walkmen throughout my playlists: their songs are infinitely listenable, suitable for the most raucous and joyful dance party to the most solemn and mournful of occasions. I have seen the Walkmen live four times, and each performance left a unique imprint:
- Opening for Kings of Leon in April 2009, they play to an empty arena at George Mason University’s Patriot Center. Undeterred by the lack of audience, the band powers through the set list in what, from our nosebleed seats, felt like a private performance.
- At 9:30 Club, December 2010, nearly an hour into their set and playing to a jubilant hometown crowd, the pounding drums of “The Rat” roll in and the crowd starts to bounce. One fan, overjoyed by the performance, leaps on stage and flails in front of the band. Unamused by the intrusion, singer Hamilton Leithauser shoves the kid from the stage, sending him flying into the crowd. A collective gasp from the audience momentarily obscures the music.
- At Williamsburg Waterfront, September 2011, looking out onto the Manhattan skyline on a warm, late summer night. I turned up to the venue a half hour before my friend, who had wandered to the wrong 8th street after exiting the subway, and so I perched on a fence at the edge of the crowd, waiting for her to arrive, unable to chose between watching the show and the brilliant purple and pink sun setting through disintegrating storm clouds.
- In a spaghetti-restaurant-turned-music hall in Philadelphia, March 2012, for the band’s 10th anniversary show. They played all the hits, had the entire audience singing and swaying, and left us satisfied that they played every song we could have wanted to hear.
“In the New Year,” on You and Me
New Year’s Day, 2012: I insisted on playing this song and U2’s “New Year’s Day” on repeat. The song can be uplifting or mournful, depending on your own mood: the lyrics alternate between lamenting continuity and anticipating change. Hamilton opens the song singing “Oh, I’m still living at the old address.” But in the next stanza, as the beat continues to build and his voice gets louder, he proclaims, with confidence: “I know that it’s true/ it’s gonna be a good year/ Out of the darkness/And into the fire.” It’s the perfect song not just for New Year’s Day, but for any transitional period.
“Tenley Town,” on A Hundred Miles Off
The Walkmen are, originally, a DC-based band; they first came together here as students at the St. Albans Prep School. Tenleytown is a neighborhood in DC best known as a refuge for well-to-do white people and students from American University. “Tenley Town” comes off A Hundred Miles Off, which critics have determined to be one of the band’s weaker albums. This might be true, but “Tenley Town” is one of two songs I’ll write about from this album. The song doesn’t seem to have much to do with its namesake locale, but it has a ferocious, unrelenting tempo that recalls the frustrations and limitations of suburban youth. I hear Tenley Town and see a basement full of sweaty, anxious teenagers itching to leave the confines of their privileged lives.
“Louisiana,” A Hundred Miles Off
Louisiana also comes of A Hundred Miles Off. This is a road trip song: you play this with the windows open on a glorious, cloudless day with good friends and loved ones. Yes, this song fades out with a cacophony of French horn and jangling piano keys. The premise of “Louisiana” is simple: you’re running away, against your better instincts, with a lover. The soft drums and reverb in the guitar reflect the luxurious proposition—eluding reality—of the lyrics. Of all the lines in this song, I have a particular affinity for the phrase: “There’s thunder and there’s lightening/a hundred miles off.” Even as he’s basking in the splendor of this romance, Hamilton acknowledges and recognizes the storm on the horizon.
“Blue As Your Blood,” on Lisbon
Three notes in minor key, plucked in rapid succession, introduce “Blue As Your Blood.” Drums build in to the same beat, then the bass. The tension is palpable until Hamilton starts to sing at :40. Coming off the 2010 album Lisbon, this song is a stark contrast to “Louisiana.” This is a song about rejection and the haze of melancholy that accompanies heartbreak. The unacknowledged simile in the title is of a sky that is “blue as your blood.” We’ve all had days when we crave a cold, cloudy day to reflect a sour mood since glorious weather just seems to make a mockery out of emotional pain. But here, Hamilton contemplates love lost while reclining on a brilliant sunny day against a juniper tree.
“Little House of Savages,” on Bows+Arrows
The Walkmen are masters of the suspenseful introduction. “Little House of Savages,” from the 2004 breakout album Bows + Arrows, opens with a lingering wail that quickly reveals the pounding drums and raging guitars that accompany Hamilton’s vocals throughout the rest of the song. “Somebody’s waiting for me at home” is the primary recurring lyrics here, set into contrast by “and somebody’s got a car outside, let’s take a ride.” The guitar, the drums, the bass, the vocals: all work together to evince the tension between returning to a safe place or setting out on an unfamiliar adventure.
And since we’ve been on the topic of covers this month, be sure to listen to Asobi Seksu’s cover of the song.