Album Review: The Walkmen - Lisbon

by Steve Seel

Disclaimer up front: I have never been a terribly huge fan of The Walkmen. Second disclaimer: this review is about being won over. It's just about the only kind of review I'm in a position to write.

I wouldn't say that "everybody" knows The Walkmen's 2004 hit "The Rat"--obviously, in a country of 310 million people, some of those folks are a bit more familiar with the entire oeuvre of Taylor Swift many times over than are even slightly acquainted with The Walkmen's biggest single. However, in indie rock circles, "The Rat" is one of those definitive songs of the '00s. Its insistent guitars, its desperate drums and the indignant, croaky vocals of that guy singing way too high for his range became a familiar staple on college radio. I always admired its sheer propulsion and sense of plain pissed-off-ness, but mostly just abstractly. That guy though? Hamilton Whatshisname? Why does he do that cartoonish rising-and-falling thing with his vocal lines, a la Dylan? Wasn't my taste.

Sitting down with Lisbon, the band's new record, reminded me of a few things, though. 1) Almost no single song has ever fully encapsulated an artist or band, 2) Even a DJ forgets that simply letting songs just kind of "pass by," only half-listened-to, does both the band and the listener a disservice, 3) Man, listening to a whole album can change everything, and finally, 4) I should really read more reviews more often--because everything I discovered on this record is the stuff countless reviewers have been saying about this band for years.

Duh, right? OK, give me a second here. No, "The Rat" isn't even that representative of what The Walkmen are about at all. These guys are masters of texture and atmosphere, and furthermore, atmosphere in the service of beautifully dejected, I'm-the-last-guy-at-this-bar kind of heartache. Ironically, I love artists who tread in this territory: Tom Waits, American Music Club, The Pogues--and here was another one right under my nose! There is an awful lot of seduction in The Walkmen's music. It reveals sonic spaces that reside just down at the end of the alley, or at the other end of the bar, inviting you to approach them rather than them coming to you.

On Lisbon, a song like "Blue As Your Blood" begins completely unassumingly, then sneaks up on you with a giant bloom of aural majesty, the string pad in the chorus sounding like dawn peeking through a hangover. The military-band brass of "Stranded" is also a touch that gives the song a kind of elegiac, funeral-party-raising-glasses-at-a-wake kind of wooziness. The band even has the audacity to title a song "Woe Is Me"--a move even the aforementioned American Music Club's famously brooding Mark Eitzel wouldn't attempt-- but it works, without being maudlin or sinking into parody. Why? I'm not sure, I think it might be magic or something.

The rawk is still there, of course: if there's an analogue to "The Rat" on Lisbon it's "Angela Surf City." This time around, it's not quite as straightforward lyrically (indeed, whatever Hamilton Leithauser is singing about here, I'm missing it), but the tune still packs a pretty hefty, growly punch. "Follow the Leader" could be seen as a two-minute throwaway of raspy slop, but in the album's overall cinematic context, even this song feels at home as a kind of odd sonic way-station in the narrative.

And Leithauser's singing? It grew on me. More than that; I now hear it as an integral, and even (*gasp*) seductive component of the whole romantic, amber, almost nostalgic canvas The Walkmen are working with.

I am very happy to say that I'll go back to The Walkmen's Lisbon again and again, and also that I'm much more inspired to check out their entire back catalog now than ever before. All Music Guide described Lisbon as on the "happier" side of The Walkmen's output. If that's the case, I'm excited to discover even greater delights of gorgeous dejection ahead.

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