“The beautiful sound of a band completely and utterly at ease with their place within the music world…”
The Walkmen | Heaven
There was a time when it looked like The Walkmen could well hit the big time. It was 2004 and the band had just played what was probably the most high profile gig of their career to date. It took place under the dazzling lights of The Bait Shop, Josh Shwartz’s fictional club in pop-culture megashow The OC, the band pounding through recent single ‘Little House of Savages’, a song which alongside ‘The Rat’ made it possible to imagine the New York five piece following fellow The Bait Shop graduates The Killers into indies platinum elite.
Yet, it never quite happened. That two years after Bows & Arrows – the album that housed the two aforementioned singles – was released the group put out a track-by-track cover of Harry Nilsson and John Lennon’s 1974 album Pussy Cats suggested a group unfussed by grabbing their moment. For a decade The Walkmen have been delivering albums of deliciously tailored indie-rock and for a decade they’ve failed to capture the attention of the wider music world, which is no bad thing when you consider the fates of Jet and The Thrills – two other groups that since gracing The Bait Shop’s stage went on to be flavour of the month before fading even faster than they’d come.
Whether Heaven – the groups seventh album – will be the album that changes the situation is yet to seen, but one thing is for damn certain, it deserves to. Not least because there are great songs aplenty here, but also because it manages to be one of the most accessible records the band have made without relinquishing an ounce of what made them so special in the first place, a compliment of course, to both the band and producer Phil Ek.
And it’s to Ek’s contribution we come to first, as Heaven is a record that sounds utterly gorgeous. Where they have always been a band that excel in the analogue glow of guitars, there is here a generous slab of warmth here that has been missing from previous releases, as if the band’s vision has suddenly been pulled into sharp focus. Throughout Hamilton Leithauser’s vocal’s soar, while Paul Maroon’s lone guitar on ‘Line by Line’ positively shimmers, evoking a nostalgia for a time when an electric guitar and a captivating vocal where enough. The track itself, all brooding melody and reflective lyrics – “now I know how the story goes, the wicked all will die” – acts as the record’s stunning centrepiece.
That it’s followed by the near country-pop of ‘Song For Leigh’ highlights the fact that Ek’s simple, yet elegant production would be almost obsolete when paired with anything less than quality songwriting. As its chorus takes flight, dripping with melody, a pained Leithauser vocal gives you an insight into a group that have more than paid their dues as he croons “patience will keep you alive” and “it might take a while but you never know”.
Second track ‘Love Is Luck’ – a cousin to ‘Song For Leigh’ in its slower-paced, singing out on the porch vibe – is equally charming and again showcases an airy take from Leithauser. That it’s followed by the Kings-Of-Leon’s-The-Bucket-meets-Primal-Scream’s-Country-Girl footstomper of lead single ‘Heartbreaker’ ensures that the album quickly sets the tone, and the quality that is present throughout.
However, despite much of Heaven adopting a pace that is more suited to five middle-aged gentleman that are all fathers, that’s not to say their aren’t a few moments of the frenetic pace and unhinged sounds that those that may have only heard their earlier work would expect. ‘The Love You Love’ is owner of pounding drums, shrieking chords and a barked, staccato chorus. It’s an unbridled shot of adrenaline proving that when they want to, these dads can still rock as well as they croon.
All in all Heaven is almost without blemish, so sure-footed and bloody-minded in its calibre is it. It sounds like neither a last-ditch attempt at mass-consumption or an album made by a group of men that have given up. It is in fact the sound of a band completely and utterly at ease with their place within the modern music world. “I’ve seen how the whole thing ends, the honest man survives” sings Leithauser on ‘Line By Line’. The Walkmen, as honest a band there is, have not only survived but are sounding as vital as ever.