Bows + Arrows Turns 10
Back in December, I wrote a profile about the Walkmen that doubled as a maybe-eulogy for the band as they embarked on an indefinite hiatus and various solo projects. It was inevitable that the potential end of the Walkmen elicited, for many, memories of a bygone era of New York and its rock music, but the narrative of the Walkmen as a New York band was something I never totally related to, and a notion I pushed against repeatedly in that piece. At the very least, by the end of their existence the Walkmen were not a New York band. Whether it was the geographical realities of their lives — all from D.C. originally, with guitarist Paul Maroon, guitarist/organist Pete Bauer, and drummer Matt Barrick all decamping from New York within the first half of the band’s career — or the fact that any sense of place in their music became more nuanced or elusive as the albums took on a different tone, this strikes me as inarguable. In those last three Walkmen albums, there are whole other worlds suggested far beyond Manhattan’s streets. There are enough traces of the sea, and the desert, and of cities far New York’s senior on You & Me and Lisbon that by the time 2012’s Heaven arrived, the band had crafted a sound simultaneously more cinematic and intimate than where they’d started. A sound that had very little to nothing to do with the young men they were or the city in which they were those young men, even if scattered remembrances last December still had “early ’00s New York band” as their calling card. I still hold all of this to be true. Given, I did not live in New York when Bows + Arrows was released.
Bows + Arrows was the band’s sophomore effort, and yesterday marked ten years since it was released. More so than some of these other anniversary pieces, this strikes me as impossible. If you lived through early-’00s indie or even if you didn’t, sure, the thing has markers of its era — loosely but most persisting is probably that it could be linked to the rise of retro- and garage-rock in the indie sphere during the early part of the last decade. Mostly, though, if you sit and listen to it and briefly tuck away the memories accrued with the album in its ten year lifespan, it is entirely plausible that this is the sound of something that could come out this year. It sounds newly exhilarating and ageless in a way that, say, the Strokes’ Room On Fire, which turned ten last October, does not. I suppose you could attribute that to a whole host of things, and you might make the argument that indie music doesn’t sound wildly different than it did ten years ago, that little micro-revolutions and revivals keep it simmering rather than evolving in leaps and bounds. Even if that’s true, it does a disservice to the Walkmen and to Bows + Arrows, which is their second (or, on certain days, I’d say third) best record but probably one of the last ten years’ classic records.
It’s tempting to say that the record’s seeming timelessness is another bit of proof of the band’s general detachment from place, era, or any specific movement or sub-genre that they were shoehorned into during their early days. But if you go back through those remembrances from last December, you’ll find current and former New Yorkers looking back to Bows + Arrows almost singularly, “The Rat” especially. Part of this has to be that Bows + Arrows was square in the moment of the Walkmen’s career where they flirted with more mainstream and crossover success. They appeared on The O.C., performing “What’s In It For Me” and “Little House Of Savages.” It was then, and remains, their most accessible and widely likeable album, the sort of thing you can like if listening to rock or indie isn’t one of your main focuses in life or music alike. While it rewards repeat listens, it doesn’t take as long to reveal itself as subsequent Walkmen outings. Things pulse and roar in ways the band never would allow again. Where their later albums invited you to meanderingly amble along with them contemplatively, Bows + Arrows was the band’s first and last moment of writing the sort of music that demands your attention rather than requests it. That’s more a comment on the nature of the music than the quality of it — You & Me has always struck me as their best and most quintessential album, and it began a rich second phase in their career. Even if that last run of Walkmen albums were steadily critically acclaimed, though, if you have only a passing interest in the band and only owned one of their records, it’s probably Bows + Arrows.
All that means Bows + Arrows is a singular moment in the Walkmen’s career. It’s related to its predecessor Everyone Who Pretended To Like Me Is Gone, but compared to how You & Me, Lisbon, and Heaven logically and musically function as a trilogy, Bows + Arrows is more of a standalone affair. When people single it out, they are for a moment entirely right in talking about the Walkmen as a New York band. Technically, you could probably say Everyone Who Pretended To Like Me Is Gone is their record most inextricably born from New York. It’s the album that resulted from everyone living together in the city for the first sustained bit of time, from their lives spent at day jobs they knew they could escape by five, so they could hop on the subway and go uptown, to their studio in Harlem. Bit by bit, the first album was conceived that way, whereas only a portion of Bows + Arrows was, the rest being recorded in the South. But Everyone Who Pretended To Like Me Is Gone doesn’t have that right sound. Bows + Arrows does.
Think of every cliff note version of an angst-ridden young New York band: brash, snide, sardonic, dejected, a musical or visual aesthetic that readily betrays your classic rock icons being of the Velvet Underground or Clash variety. This early installment of the Walkmen had all that. But there was a bit more going on under the surface. When I first met frontman Hamilton Leithauser in Texas last November, I was taken aback when he told me they never used distortion. In my memory, Bows + Arrows was full of guitars that were angular and precise, but also gnawing and burning. It’s true, though. All the fuzz around riffs like those in “Thinking Of The Dream I Had” sound natural — clean tones that just got pushed to their breaking point. To me, more so than any sneer the band adopted as an attitude on Bows + Arrows, this is how the album encapsulates New York. Matt Barrick’s tumbling drum patterns, the overheated guitars bubbling over in organic fury, the way the residue of a band’s sweat and Leithauser’s spit seem to be all over this recording — all these qualities evoke New York much in the way that their later, woozier rhythms seemed to distantly recall more ancient European capitals.
As much as Bows + Arrows is a classic portrait of angry young men in New York, though, it also has something else in it: a world-weariness that belied a beleaguered maturity different than the studied too-cool apathy of the Strokes or the neurotically moody rhythms of Interpol. In between the thrash and bark of songs like “Little House Of Savages,” “My Old Man,” or “Thinking Of A Dream I Had,” is stuff like “Hang On, Siobhan,” or “New Years Eve,” or “138th Street,” material that in hindsight betrays that the core nature of the Walkmen would always be a more meditative brand of negativity than the sort of vitriol that got attributed to them on these early records.
Hints of that are even present in “The Rat,” to this day the band’s fiercest barn-burner and a bizarre example of a song that is easily their definitive work while also being wholly uncharacteristic in relation to the rest of their career. The song has one of Leithauser’s best and most representative lyrics: “When I used to go out, I would know everyone that I saw/ Now I go out alone if I go out at all.” That isn’t laconic New York angst. Those are the words of a young man feeling old before his time, of wanting to break out of something but being unable to. “The Rat” doesn’t sound immortal just because it is as infectious and blood-boiling on its hundredth or thousandth spin as the first, but also because it feels truer to the 21st century experience of living in New York, of inherently having to be young and old, in awe and disillusioned, than any sort of faux-Bohemia mess that a whole lot of other Manhattan- and Brooklyn-born indie would peddle.
There’s a sort of inescapable tragedy of living in New York in your twenties. There’s the grand myth of the city, something you want to drink in deeply but are, these days, savvy enough to know is just that — myth. Legends are etched into street corners all around you, whether you want to romanticize the Beats hanging in the Village in the ’50s, or Warhol’s Factory and the Velvet Underground, or (perhaps in a half-mislead way) the scuzzy, dangerous New York of the ’70s and ’80s that supported a decadent disco scene and bands like Talking Heads short subway rides away from one another. That’s all there and, sure, it’s enough to inspire wonder, but it’s also something that gets in the way. When you live in a place like New York, it feels as if history is ever-present in the air, but coursing around you rapidly, slithering around as the place continually alters itself. The present is always becoming heavier, because there’s continually more past to crowd it.
So you move there when you’re young to take all that on, and maybe it works out, or maybe you wind up writing one of those “Why I Left New York”-type essays that are insufferable to everyone who’s never lived in the place. I’d argue the best contemporary New York albums are those that are conflicted about the place, ones that are pregnant with its past, but equal parts frustrated at not having lived in all the other supposed glory days and at the fact that there is such a constant lionizing of past eras to begin with. As Bows + Arrows turns ten years old, it almost feels like it is from the last era we do that to — we can now talk about it as that early ’00s boom of exciting young New York bands before years of New York Times thinkpieces about hipsterdom, we can now talk about that as an era that held the last waning gasp of a pseudo-monoculture before the free-for-all that followed. We can now talk about it as a last burst of a certain version of New York before Bloomberg sterilized it, even though that shows how the city makes our memories murky so quickly, because of course that process was already thoroughly underway, and had been for some time. Maybe that’s why Bows + Arrows sounds so elegiac for a young band — the Walkmen were of a generation of New York-based artists that inevitably lived in the shadow of a lost, mythologized New York. That kind of thing will make you world-weary by your mid-twenties, easy.
Bows + Arrows is a New York album, and it’s up there with Is This It? and Sound of Silver and High Violet as one of the best New York albums indie rock has given us since the turn of the millennium. It’s the stuff that captures all the strain and eyerolls and wearied laughter of living in the place, that bizarre existence of somehow being in perpetual adolescence and feeling too old for your age, that tension between always being lectured on the canonized past but living in a place that is known for its frenetic pace of change. It only makes sense that this would be the Walkmen’s only true New York album, that they would scatter off to new places after doing so. Bows + Arrows realizes the sort of paralysis that can paradoxically come from New York. Its guitars and drums pound with the city’s pulse, but also with the surge of a band sick of its confines, striving to boil over Manhattan’s island boundaries and out into the world.
It’s a rare sort of relic then. The more I think about it, Bows + Arrows does feel so obviously rooted in a specific time and place in a past I, as a more recent New Yorker, have already learned to canonize, an era that itself was indebted and beholden to canonized eras before it. But just as “The Rat” has gained vigor in years, so too does the rest of it remain undiminished in its power. It remains a standalone yet pivotal entry in the Walkmen’s existence, their document of life in New York in the ’00s in all its visceral and frustrating extremes. Perhaps because those feelings are still relevant, the music still sounds as vital as when it was released, enough so that if you presented this to me as the debut of a new band in 2014, I would believe it. And if that was true, the first thing I would do is put on my headphones, and as I pressed play and the organs of “What’s In It For Me” groaned to life, I would walk out onto a New York City street at night, and I’d hope it was a cold and harsh one.