Sunday, 27 May 2012

The Walkmen - Heaven

In many ways the success of the twitchy pin-sharp punk of The Walkmen’s 2004 single ‘The Rat’ was the worst thing that could have happened to the sharp suited New Yorkers. After several years slogging away under the guise of Jonathan Fire*Eater and a critically successful but commercially disappointing debut album, to have a track good enough to be ranked 13th in NME’s songs of the decade and Pitchfork’s 6th best single of the year put them under intense pressure from their record company to repeat the trick. Like fellow New Yorkers, The Rapture, having a song go stratospheric seemed to send The Walkmen into a tailspin. Their follow-up records 2006’s ‘A Hundred Miles Off’ and a track-by-track cover of Harry Nilsson’s ‘Pussycats’ were not bad but they failed to capture the frenetic energy of their albatross single and their audience began to question whether the group would be able to bottle lightning twice.

Fortunately on 2010’s ‘Lisbon’ the group re-emerged with a new focus. The tracks stopped dealing with life in New York and took off in more ambitious directions and making ‘Lisbon’ both a critical success and gifting the group their highest US chart position to date (28)

It makes sense therefore for the quintet to quickly return to the studio and capitalise on their new found popularity. Heaven is the result and it serves up the best bits of everything they’ve done to date.

The opening track ‘We Can’t Be Beat’ is something of a misnomer, introducing hushed acoustic guitar and doo-wop vocals to the group’s repertoire. The rest of ‘Heaven’ however is split between bright classic guitar rock and the swaggering but thoughtful post-punk on which they’ve built their reputation. In fact, second track ‘Love is Luck’ could be their Elbow moment – when hard-working boys finally crack widescreen choruses without sacrificing the soul beneath. It sounds gigantic but it’s well anchored by Matt Barrick’s echoing drums. ‘Heartbreaker’ takes the Vaccines' sing-along choruses and classic strum for a downtown drive whilst ‘The Witch’ could easily have fallen off Arcade Fire’s ‘Neon Bible’, the moodiness of Warpaint or Interpol backed by weaving guitar lines and organ. Apart from the title track which sounds like the poppier moments of The Cure set adrift in Blondie’s ‘Union City Blue’ the second half of the album is more introspective and melancholic than the first but it feels like a subtle transition, anchored throughout by Hamilton Leithauser’s strong clear vocals. Closer ‘Dreamboat’ takes the album full circle with angelic retro harmonies and a guitar line that recalls producer Phil Ek’s work with Fleet Foxes.

The Walkmen have risen, fallen, grown-up and risen again from the ashes.
Heaven? Close enough.


Max Sefton

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