Though The Walkmen come from New York City, a place oversaturated with indie-music royalty, they have always managed to aggressively assert their relevance in the music world (see single “The Rat” for evidence of said aggression). After storming the scene with their debut Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me is Gone in 2002, The Walkmen turned a more sullen corner with 2008’s You & Me.
On the band’s most recent effort Lisbon, lead singer Hamilton Leithauser’s voice rings clear, and we can actually distinguish the lyrics, which are, in traditional Walkmen style, exasperated and frustrated.
Lisbon suggests a band that has taken a rather large chill pill. Think less “band spitting bile” and more “Grizzly Bear precision.” Lisbon is comprised of taut songs that don’t overstay their welcome and economical arrangements that are the musical equivalent of “portion control.”
The opening track “Juveniles” happens to be the best on the entire album. Leithauser registers better vocal control than ever before as he belts “You’re one of us/ Or one of them.” The carefree, summery mood is skillfully crafted, tricking the listener into believing it’s effortless. Upon a closer listen, the intricacies unfold themselves in the song’s closing minute as it all comes together in triumphant, jangly crescendo.
“Blue as Your Blood” tiptoes in with a restless-sounding guitar line accompanied by drummer Matt Barrick’s barebones tick-tock tapping that furthers the uneasy mood of the song. You can practically taste the anxiety in the relentless and static beat. The spare arrangement allows Leithauser’s voice to take center stage, which serves as a soothing and melodic counterpart to an otherwise austere arrangement.
“Stranded” is a strange waltz complete with slow-building brass arrangements. Poignant as well as melancholy, it wouldn’t sound amiss in the ending credits of an independent film. Resignation and dejectedness are evident as Leithauser moans “There’s broken glass all around my feet / Laid my plans so carelessly / Whats the story / With my old friends?”
However enjoyable The Walkmen’s refreshing sparseness may be, sparseness and directionless do not mix well. “Follow the Leader” is a skippable rambling on guitar that sounds more like the band warming up before a live show than a slick, label-produced track. Far from even attempting to have a melody, even the usually captivating voice of Leithauser is, for the first time, abrasive. Fear not, however, for the song is over very quickly and anti-climactically.
Lisbon succeeds as a guitar album without relying on the usual guitar histrionics. The clear Television-like tone and lack of adornment (save for the horns in “Stranded”) in production really lets the guitars stand out. Despite the inherent simplicity, the band fills out the arrangements with minimal instrumentation and no obvious overdubs, which takes a great and rare skill.
So often now, bands fall on one of two sides of the spectrum: sloppy and drunk garage-rock with a lazy throwback lo-fi recording style, or on the other side, pretentious lush instrumentation that hangs like an over-produced Spector-wannabe haze throughout the whole record. The Walkmen have thankfully managed to avoid both of these unfortunate missteps, and shall rise a little higher in the NYC music royalty ranks because of it.