Monday, November 22, 2010
My country baffles me at times. Millions of people sit in front of their television set to watch a show about misbehaving drunken youngsters in Greece or they gather round to watch a show about misbehaving old people in Spain, yet only three-quarters of Tivoli was filled to see one of indierock’s finest at work. Hamilton Leithauser could have written a song about either a girl in the show, or a girl watching it. The Walkmen’s latest album is full of observation songs about the young and old, the witless and the thinkers.
“Lisbon” might very well top my personal end-of-the-year poll; a collection of 11 almost perfect songs about people mostly. Musically they haven’t strayed far from the dark sound of “You & I” . It has that same authentic and very unique Walkmen atmosphere, though somewhat more upbeat. My biggest question was how this would be translated to the stage, but that question was answered early on: it would.
In their only separate show in the Netherlands during their tour they played for about an hour. The sound needed some time to get together in the first few songs but once that was settled it all sounded beautifully. Loud at times, yet never distorted. The show the night before in Den Haag was not a great experience according to the band, but this seemed to be.
The Walkmen sound is predominantly made of the guitarsound of Paul Marroon’s Rickenbacker piped through an older amp set hi reverb to create a sound that is both mid -20th century sounding but also very 2010: A thick layer of deep guitarsound that colors the songs. The songs are carried mostly by Matt Berrick’s frantic banging on the drumset. Loose, inventive and sometimes counter-rhythmic he was the one highlight to watch. Some of their songs have almost no variations, but he never missed a beat.
The other is singer Hamilton Leithauser. I was already aware that he gave everything in every song and tonight was nothing else. Dylan-intonations at times but most of all Leithauser-strength. A towering clear voice that was louder than the instruments, but he never became a shouter. That’s a big positive: while the uptempo and highly emotional songs will lead many singers into the realm of gospel or punk shouts, he stays just under the surface to get the highest emotion.
Most of the songs were off the last two albums, with one song from their first and of course their ‘hit’ “The Rat” which is reaching almost mythical status as one of the best songs of this century. The Walkmen deserve a better audience than this. The concert might not have been among the best of the year, but what it did show as that “Lisbon” is a remarkable varied album that doesn’t have one miss among the 11 tracks.
Compare the first notes of Lisbon with You & I and notice that this album might be slightly more upbeat. But don’t be swayed by the music alone. In Hamilton’s world most things are dangly, shaky and ‘a tragedy’, though with some hope. It’s an us vs them album: ‘you’re one of us, or one of them’ he sings in the chorus of opener “Juveniles”. Superficial youth join us in “Angela Surf City”, about a girl who is easy, doesn’t hold a grudge over nothing but seems superficial, not knowing about the world that’s going on around her. Leithauser knows exactly what that world is and explores it in depth; sitting alone and wondering why in the almost Cash-like “Blue as your blood”. Juvineles, Angelas and black-eyed Spanish speakers all fall within the view of Leithauser and they don’t escape his pen.
The sound is indeed somewhat more upbeat than the at times very dark predecessor. Especially the slower songs ask the most from the band and they deliver: the teasingly slow “All My Great Designs”, the beautiful ballad “While I Shovel The Snow” and the great “Woe Is Me”, a happy song with a depressing title.
Age has made the Walkmen more observational, the urgency of “The Rat” has been replaced by a wisdom that hovers high about that of most television viewers. They have learned from their past, and from their mistakes. It’s all relative, it’s all over, anyhow.