Heaven by The Walkmen

By Philip Stone
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Longtime fans of The Walkmen might be tempted to brush this album aside. For well over ten years, these five New Yorkers have been the yeoman voice of good kids behaving badly. With their sixth full length of new material, Heaven, there is an unmistakable shift towards social rehabilitation. These East Coast dilettantes are no longer opening their records by getting kicked out of bars (see Bows and Arrows). Instead, they open with a statement of slowing down: “I was the pony express, but I ran out of gas.” It’s not even the confession of exhaustion that is the most startling thing you’ll first notice about Heaven but it’s the way it’s communicated: calmly, without detachment, and in tune. Long gone are the days of clanky speakeasy pianos, of bass lines played off time, of a singer so far past last call that all he can do is slur his lyrics or screech them so loudly that you can hear the veins in his forehead bulging.

Credit the encroachment of adulthood or credit producer Phil Ek (Fleet Foxes’ Helplessness Blues), because the entitled, misbehaved, and emotionally detached prep boys of The Walkmen have finally straightened their ties, tuned their instruments, sobered up, and delivered a record that reflects their decade long commitment to songwriting. Heaven is a beautiful, well structured, and–in a most un-Walkmen way–calm record. As it rolls forward through country-tinged ditties like “We Can’t be Beat“, delicate acoustic numbers like “Southern Heart” and “Line by Line” and deliberately paced upbeat tunes like “Song for Leigh”, one keeps waiting for the inevitable emotional dam burst that never comes. We’ve become so accustomed to vocalist Hamilton Leithauser temporarily losing his shit, taking a breather, combing his hair, and tucking his shirt back in that we take it for granted this will happen every time he gets in the studio. Songs like “The Rat“, “All Hands and the Cook“, “In the New Year“, and “Angela Surf City” were all unexpected, unchecked geysers spewing from a repressed id. Heaven’s geyser never comes. When the fast paced “The Love You Love” barrels through your speakers, you might mistakenly think they’ve left their therapy for the end of the record. Then he sings “Baby it’s the love you love, not me.” I don’t think he would have cared before, as this is the same guy who recently said “You’re with someone else tomorrow night, doesn’t matter to me. Cuz as the sun dies into the hill, you’ve got all I need.”

Nevertheless, Heaven is something special and it will most likely grow on you. For longtime Walkmen fans, it will take several listens for its charms to grab you. Whether it be the humid, sleepwalking vibes of “No One Ever Sleeps” or the early U2 guitar lines of title track “Heaven“, there will be an entry point where you realize that this record deserves multiple listens. The Walkmen are still a great rock and roll band; as they’ve become parents, they’ve oddly began to sound like their parents’ rock and roll bands. Like that unwanted shock of grey hair that’s shot across your previously flawless black mane, you should embrace the change with dignity. The Walkmen have.

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