[Fat Possum / Bella Union, 2012]
Jeff Pearson, August 12, 2012
Listen: “The Love You Love”
It often seems that the conditions and surroundings of a recording session influence the direction of the record that is yielded. A lot of times, bedroom recordings can be distinguished not only by their low fidelity nature of the sound, but also are often driven by a dreamer’s vision of starry-eyed wonder. A lot can be inferred about the circumstances that surround the recording of an album by simply taking in all of the tonal quality and subject matter of the songs within. It is because of this that after hearing The Walkmen’s seventh full-length album, Heaven, it came as no surprise that much of the often pastoral and insouciant record was recorded in a studio in the woods outside of Seattle. The band that has, for so long, embodied the rugged workmen of city life, crawling across barroom floors by night, brings a record of a completely different nature. Not to say The Walkmen have penned a freak-folk obituary to the dying earth around them—there are still plenty of barroom crawls throughout the record—but the band we hear on Heaven has definitely learned thing or two from being holed up in a studio with the trees reaching for the skies around them.
As Hamilton Leithauser’s vocal first soars over the folk-rock balladry of “We Can’t Be Beat,” the opening track of Heaven, this side of The Walkmen is fully on display. The song begins with Leithauser’s voice accompanied simply by a lilting acoustic guitar and choirs of “Oohs and ahs,” like rays of light pouring in through the trees around a lone man and a guitar. The track is adorned with lush vocal harmonies by the band, aided by Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold. It is one of four songs on Heaven to which Pecknold adds his subtle touch; playing the role of just another face in the crowd, voice in the band—a luxury no longer afforded to him in his own endeavors. As Leithauser wails, “It’s been so long, so long, but I made it through,” the rest of the band finally joins in with a slow western-style jaunt, sounding like loose change jangling in the pocket of the lone troubadour, fully ushering The Walkmen into Heaven.
The pace livens quickly with “Love Is Luck,” with guitarist Paul Maroon and drummer Matt Barrick tumble into the track together, giving way to the loud three-hit splash of the chorus. The song has a simplicity to it that speaks volumes; the verses plod along with nonchalance and an easygoing attitude, which is reflective of the state of mind the band was in at the time of recording Heaven. Leithauser said of the recording sessions that it was the “band’s easiest one yet,” and the ease with which “Love Is Luck” unfolds itself, rolling guitar melodies giving way to a pounding, infectious chorus, sheds light on that fact. As of late, Maroon handles the bulk of the songwriting duties, crafting the structures of the songs and leaving everyone the skeletons to fill in accordingly. The record is an indication of how well the band works within this format, since the songs all have the very common thread of Maroon’s fluid songwriting, but with personal touches coming from each member.
“Heartbreaker” and “The Witch” continue the momentum built by the effervescent “Love Is Luck,” keeping the energy present on Heaven boiling. “Heartbreaker” sees clean guitars rifling atop a raw rhythmic pulse, Leithauser singing abbreviated lines such as, “I’m not your heartbreaker / Some tender ballad playin’.” With the track, The Walkmen are making the age-old statement of not shooting the messenger, saying that heartbreaking songs are what breaks the hearts—not the people playing them. “The Witch” is a slow, bluesy number with far-off guitar slashes to the heart, and haunting—fittingly so, given the title—sing-along melodies. Leithauser describes a situation many people can relate to, whether personally geographically accurate or not, the lost feeling of not knowing where you stand with the one you love. He cuts right to the core of many listeners, singing, “Driving through central Michigan / Listening to the country station / Wondering where I stand.” With lines like this, Leithauser displays a keen understanding of the concept of vivid, simple imagery in his lyrics. As is the case with nearly all of the lyricism present on Heaven, “The Witch” is conceptually simple and relatable.
One of the great things about this record, aside from the easily digested subject matter, is the natural flow that makes up the shape of Heaven. The album has ebbs and flows and takes the listener on a journey, with each song wonderfully paced, making for a very cohesive effort. The slow-burning “The Witch” gives way to “Southern Heart,” a delicate, eerily beautiful song that sounds whispered from an antique turntable needle. Leithauser’s vocals are coated in reverb as he sings of trying to win the love of a southern belle, the red clay dust practically visible, swirling about the ghostly song. “Line By Line” follows, continuing the subdued mood of the middle portion of the record; an oscillating electric guitar is Leithauser’s only accompaniment as he sings the hopeful message of, “How do we know it? / I just know it.” It is with this simple show of faith that The Walkmen breathes life into the sparse and desolate sonic world created with the track.
After the two-song refrain of sorts, The Walkmen let Heaven ride out in a blaze of glory, with high-energy songs rounding out the remainder of the record. “Song For Leigh” doubles as a middle-finger salute with the raw emotion behind the track, and a heartbroken love letter to a lost flame—judging by the lyrics, one of many—with Leithauser telling the subject of the song, “I sing myself sick about you.” “The Love You Love” is The Walkmen at their best, a verse propelled by Walter Martin’s machine-gun bassline, with a subdued emotion in the vocals, until the track bursts at the seams in the chorus with Leithauser howling, “Where we are and where we should be,” over equally intense guitar strikes. The track does a great job at representing Heaven as a whole; there is a constant energy present that is ready to explode from every pore. One of the main things about The Walkmen these days is that they have really learned to harness that energy and allow it take over a song. They understand their identity as a band and the balance of restraint and exuberance that their music requires.
As the final cleanly picked guitars and silvery vocal harmonies fade out of existence on “Dreamboat,” the last track on Heaven, like the last rays of sun dropping behind the tree line, Heaven slowly dripping away, there is little doubt of who The Walkmen are as a band. They aren’t choir boys making lush folk music, but they can play the part, and they can use their wooded land to do so. In crafting this record, letting the natural flows of the world around them inundate their music paid in dividends. It has the typical free-flying romp that listeners of the band will be familiar with, but a very unrefined spirit about it that can only come with recording among the grasping trees. Never before has the pulse of the earth been felt so closely through the cracks of a barroom floor.