The title track on the newest Walkmen record Heaven, seems to suggest that heaven, at least in the realm of human relationships, does not come easy, placing the band on the periphery of the cheery perfection of love promised by many modern day pop songs. In keeping with the band’s encouragement on this track to “remember, remember, all we fight for,” their approach to their craft throughout the thirteen songs on Heaven, although bathed in a pop sheen, reveals a deep, mature take on the pop music genre tempered by age and experience. Heaven being my first encounter with The Walkmen, I am thoroughly impressed by the deceptive simplicity of their music, which continues to yield unexpected pleasures with each subsequent listen.
World-weary as Heaven feels at times, it nevertheless manages to weave optimism into a number of its tracks. “We Can’t Be Beat,” the album opener, is a slow-burner with a beautiful hook/melody that is guaranteed to embed itself in your brain despite its languid tempo, as lead singer Hamilton Leithauser croons, “It’s been so long, been so long, but I made it through… The world is ours, we can’t be beat.” Sentiments like this are scattered across the album, but always within a context of human imperfection—for the band, the two are inseparable, joy and triumph intertwined with loss and failure. “Heartbreaker” and its erratic guitar, is at once subdued but powerful, turning its title (and “By My Baby” pastiche) into a kind of joke, “I’m not your heartbreaker, some tender ballad playin’.” Instead of providing an album filled with songs of heartbreak and woe, The Walkmen offer a few different takes on love and its workings: on “The Witch” love becomes a character who “will decide,” and the message of “Love is Luck” is summed up well in its title.
Love, then, is treated with much more nuance on Heaven than is typically granted to the emotion, at least in popular music. It’s not merely an overwhelming feeling that makes everything perfect, but an arbiter, a vagrant, a faithful father—depending on the scenario. The churning guitar riff that populates the sonic background of “Nightingales” punctuates Leithauser’s cries of “wind and grind, it’s how the days go by” lending a certain hardiness to his statement earlier in the song of “mock my love, it don’t break.” The music conveys a palpable sense of the struggle necessary for a relationship to thrive in a world that is constantly grinding away at the foundation needed to uphold friendship or romance. Given that “The Love You Love” follows “Nightingales” seems to confirm the importance of a form of love grounded in more than an emotional feeling. As Leithauser sings, “Baby, it’s the love you love, not me,” it becomes abundantly clear that any form of love obsessed with chasing a feeling ultimately devalues the object of its love in search of emotional highs.
Interestingly, the music on the album rarely provides any clues as to the lyrical content; “The Love You Love” is one of the most upbeat songs on Heaven despite its rather pessimistic lyrical tone, while the dark picked guitar that opens “Line By Line” gives way to the quasi-optimism of “Line by line, we all scrape by.” Further expanding Heaven’s emotional palette is the album closer, “Dreamboat,” a moody, contemplative track which concludes the album with the lines, “I left you, a million times, the irony ain’t lost on me.” The landscape traversed by the band is not one that is easily assimilated into a tight, tidy package; instead, like life itself, Heaven forces us to take stock of the myriad of emotions that affect us every day, and look past the veneer painted over these distinctly difficult moments by the pop songs that pervade the radio waves.
While this perspective alone could suffice for me to commend this album, Heaven’s musical qualities more than speak for themselves and are sure to please fans of the band’s previous work and indie-pop in general. The pleasing strains of Leithauser’s voice and the band’s knack for subtly building their songs by adding little details throughout their songs makes for some picturesque pop, offering constant surprises. Indeed, if The Walkmen keep making music like this, they will be hard to beat.