The Walkmen – Lisbon Premature Evaluation

By / August 3, 2010

When Hamilton Leithauser stopped through for a Progress Report he focused on Lisbon‘s rawness:

We have all these rock songs and they’re really stripped down, they’re really like a guitar, a bass, and a drum a lot of them so far. And then we’re going to put a few other things on them, but the core sound is a minimal thing that is really sort of raw … For us it’s just new. Maybe because we’ve just always put so much garnish all over our crap for some reason. It’s kind of nice.

“Rock” came up a a bunch. He also mentioned “power shuffles,” aka “really powerful” waltzes and noted that the new batch of songs possess “so much juice.” The best laid plans? Or did he and his Walkmen stick to that general aesthetic template for their followup to ’08s You & Me?

Most folks’ first taste of the new 11-song collection was the horn-lined “Stranded.” It has You & Me‘s moody, elegiac feel. In general, the new collection does move away from the more layered and unhinged, darker and shaggier vibe of its predecessor. Sonically, they bring more of the straight-up rock. Not that You & Me didn’t also come out swinging via “In the New Year” and “Postcards from Tiny Islands,” etc., but Lisbon‘s less world-weary, more celebratory. As Ham told NPR:

We took two trips to Lisbon over the course of writing this record [...] None of us had ever been there, and we were really blown away by the place. The topography and architecture are stunningly handsome. Even when we were there for the rainy season — it literally never stopped raining — it was a trip that outshone a lot of others. We’ve never had much luck at all in Europe, and the Portuguese were surprisingly accommodating. I think those two trips really helped keep us motivated while making this record. We named the record Lisbon as sort of a “thank you” and a small tribute.

So where You & Me often felt (pleasingly) insular, Lisbon is an album about being outdoors and experiencing different landscapes firsthand. The optimistic opener “Juveniles” tells us “country air is good for me.” (Instead of mulching in the rain, its dead leaves are drying in the sun. We get luck, good things to come.) It’s followed by the bursting-at-the-seams anthem “Angela Surf City”: White caps roll continuously as “life goes on all around you.” The brief, transitional “Follow The Leader” sounds like a carnival imploding — without losing its joyful stuffing. Even a song like “Blue As Your Blood” — with a title suggesting sadness and a heartbroken Hamilton Leithhauser — is muscular, romantic, and triumphantly restrained. The details that gallop along with the quick-pulse of the guitars, dramatic strings, and cymbal crashes: He sings his lament by juniper trees, beneath an ever-present sky as blue as his Spanish (or at least Spanish-speaking) love’s blood. It’s songs like this that make Lisbon an easily satisfying listen. Ditto the equally ebullient, uplifting rocker “Woe Is Me,” another sunny song — maybe the sunniest — with an un-sunny title. (Even “When I Shovel The Snow” has a surprising tropical warmth to it.)

Across Lisbon‘s 45 minutes, you don’t need to pick through layers (or dead leaves) to find yourself an addictive hook. See, for instance the carousing and uplifting “Victory.” The skeletal/in-the-same-room immediacy of the mellower “All My Great Designs” and side-winding closer “Lisbon,” the longest, most leisurely (and Walkmen on Astral Weeks) track on the collection.

The Walkmen have gotten so good at what they do, it’s easy enough to overlook the complexity of what it is they’re creating. There aren’t many seams. It’s hard to find a drop of sweat. They call a song “Torch Song” and give you a torch song. No need to be cute, it’s sturdy regardless. They “coast” and careen with their heads held high. The things is, their assured approach is welcome, not boring. It’s rock ‘n’ roll balm. They’re doing something you can count on, which in an increasingly temporary ADD culture seems more radical than music twice as strange.

Lisbon is out in 9/14 via Fat Possum.