Before we got to soak-in the woozy organ and raw yelps of “In the New Year,” the last taste we had of the Walkmen was that one-off “Lemon Hill.” As we mentioned then, the Men said “Lemon” wasn’t “exactly in line with the other stuff we are doing now.” “In The New Year”‘s clattering drums, urgent enunciations, general ragamuffin vibe, and almost Strokes-y swagger definitely suggested a different path. Listening to the 14 tracks on the band’s fourth album You & Me confirms it. The new one’s accompanying press release referenced Elvis, Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison, Randy Newman, the Modern Lovers, and the Pogues. Hmm, some of these seem like empty promises. But how about Danger Mouse?
Seriously, some of the production here (a la the underwater drums on “Dónde está la Playa”) suggest Mouse’s dark eerie knob-turning. In fact, most of the collection has a moody, ambient sensibility to it, though it was John Agnello (The Hold Steady’s Boys & Girls… and Stay Positive) and Chris Zane who engineered it. But then, you won’t be confusing these ragtag anthems for the beer-soaked anthems of Craig & Co. anytime soon. It’s more of a late-night brandy-infused Closing Time. Lyrically, “In The New Year” found Leithauser watching loved ones move away and wanting to get home, through storms and snow and therapy. The first track “Dónde está la Playa” asks us to locate the beach. OK, it’s buried beneath years and snow. A thread of loss, battling the elements, runs throughout You & Me. Think about the album title, for instance — it can suggest a togetherness, but also a war, nostalgia, loss. Years roll by everywhere, marked by holidays and faded recollections. In “New Country,” Ham gets a letter, throws all his old things, turns down an offer. There’s the self-explanatory “I Lost You.” In the somber, horn-accented “Red Moon,” darkness is wrapped all around. (There’s also something Canadian going on here with “Canadian Girl” and “Four Provinces” … the two tracks up the mood a bit after “Red Moon.”)
Musically, the unhinged, rougher or sketchier sound is great. It creeps throughout, and wears well the weight Hamilton confesses in each song. The way “On The Water” builds from quiet, ethereal balladry to a horse-voiced anthem (whistling, shimmering guitar distortion). That harp sound paired with the organ sustain a minute into “Long Time Ahead of Us.” “Seven Years of Holidays (for Stretch)”‘s percussion crashes as the band rollicks, the strings sooth, as does Leithauser. Throughout, Hamilton sounds like he truly is battling the dying of the night — both smooth and raspy, urgent and assured.
Face it, the quest for this year’s Summer Jam is doomed; wallets are tight and frivolity doesn’t seem right. But in shifting the search to something more mood appropriate, a Slow Jam ’08, we’ve found our champion in “Red Moon,” with its romantic and pensive struggles, a focus on real problems and romantic baptisms (hopes the the “water will wash us away,” etc.). This is the song to soundtrack this year’s montages. Those weary horns, the midnight tambourine, drifting into a quiet climax — Hamilton and guitar, “You shine like the steel on my knife / Darkness is wrapped around all around me tonight.” It’s a startlingly affecting moment of songcraft, the midpoint — and pivot point — of the record, and a snapshot of why, unexpectedly, the Walkmen are a band that matters in 2008.
A complaint could be that there are some patches that sound similar to things before or after them. That some pieces sound more like ambient filler than fully realized pieces. But mostly, we’re taken aback by just how great this album is. Something about the last few years had us thinking the page was turning on them. Wrong. Taken as a whole You & Me congeals in a shaggy-dog, less than perfect, but time-defining and unforgettable sort of way. Kinda like a relationship.
You & Me is out 8/19 via Gigantic.