||1 June 2012
Often considered among the most underrated of indie rock darlings, for the past decade The Walkmen have plied their trade and perfected a distinct sound, releasing an album of consistent material every two years while steadily avoiding the large-scale success their contemporaries The National and Interpol have achieved. Seventh album Heaven finds them at their most structured and mature. It’s a celebration of the unsteady waters one treads on the path to middle age as the band finally succeed in making music a viable career.
Opener 'We Can’t Be Beat' features the kind of lush, delicate vocal harmonies usually seen in the work of label-mates Fleet Foxes. It’s a brief but welcome breath of fresh air that sees the band step away from their usual authentic and raw sound, if only for a moment. The layered vocals continue as the track becomes a jangly folk song half way through.
'Love is Luck' sees the band return to familiar territory, with Beach Boys-esque guitar tone and Matt Berrick’s atypical leaps around the drum-kit. The songwriting is as strong as ever and the track sets up an air of confidence that permeates throughout the album.
"I’m not your heartbreaker, some tender ballad player", Hamilton Leithouser croons on 'Heartbreaker'. It seems a million miles from the seething melancholy previously seen in tracks like 'The Rat', which proclaimed, "Now I go out alone, if I go out at all". It charts an older and wiser protagonist now content to plead his happiness- "These are the good years, the best we’ll ever know".
The sinister bass and keys melody of 'The Witch', along with Leithouser’s howling gives the song shape as a stormy shanty and lets the listener know that middle age doesn’t necessarily negate the darker aspects of life, as the albums mid-section takes a morbid turn. 'Southern Heart' is a story of woe and "bourbon blood". A lone acoustic guitar accompanies Leithouser’s butter-smooth vocals that linger as he mourns an unachievable love. 'Line by Line' serves as a cautionary tale -possibly directed towards the speakers children- about the futility of life and the end of the world, or at least the protagonist’s world.
'Song for Leigh' tells of young love grown older and wiser. Leithouser pines for his youthful infatuation and how he would "sing myself sick about you", but remains adamant that he could never have achieved the true love he has now without the "tricks learned from the king" i.e. his younger self. Production wise, the album moves from strength to strength as 'Nightingales' replicates the high energy, full band in synch performance the group have championed within the genre. It’s another examination of mortality but while in the past the band was happy to self-loathe, they now adopt a ‘live life to the fullest until you die’ mindset.
The calm and reflective blues patterns of 'Jerry Jr.’s Tune' serves as a moment of peace before the album enters its high-octane final section, while 'The Love You Love' is a powerful scorn at a lover’s rejection.
The title-track is the album’s strongest and catchy rhythmic melodies and vocal hooks highlight the album’s central theme of aging gracefully- "Our children will always hear romantic tales of distant years". It’s an ode to love, marriage and essentially middle-age and Leithauser remains staunch in his quest to "remember all we fight for".
The final tracks 'No One Ever Sleeps' and 'Dreamboat' provide soothing lulls to the album’s overarching theme of a life-well lived with an ever-present hope for what the future will bring.
Most notable on Heaven is the step away from the bands usual subtle shift in sound dynamics and a move into a more obvious approach. The album does suffer somewhat from this as it results in a loss of the bands typical build up of emotion. The guitars are put at the forefront and played with confidence, which does away with some of the ominous subtlety that has made The Walkmen so interesting throughout their career. However, these are songs meant to commemorate, not to haunt and should be considered as such.
- Cathal Prendergast