It’s possible that, as indie reaches its AARP phase, The Walkmen exist entirely as a litmus test for your feelings on emo guitar rock. Do immasculated, unironic woe-is-me frontmen generally resonate with you or inspire a gag reflex? Do droning guitar rhythms followed by orchestral crescendos validate your sense of drama, or do they fade into the background as you check your e-mail?
For almost a decade now, lead singer Hamilton Leithauser and friends have relentlessly crafted and refined the art of guitar-based life-weariness. Leithauser moans and laments as guitars gently and not-so-gently weep about him, creating a vortex of sonic melancholy, even as it rather pleasantly rocks. The formulation is so aggressive and the effect so complete, you have almost no choice but to decide, as it plays, if the music moves you or annoys you. As such, The Walkmen tend to inspire only two reactions: total affection and utter ambivalence.
Those on the affectionate side seem all too predictable (and predisposed to anything emo-leaning), and have always been irrationally high on The Walkmen, while the ambivalent, knee-jerk irritated by those inflated opinions (and partially at the success of all emo-ish crap), wonder aloud what the big deal is. I’ve found myself on both sides of that fence, and have come to realization that, as is usually the case between two extremes, both sides have a point, but are ultimately unreasonable and plain wrong.
Lisbon, The Walkmen’s new, simultaneously acclaimed and dissed album, proves that point once and for all.
There are a million ways to trash Lisbon, but here is the easiest, and also the one that will make the most sense of my seemingly circular argument:
Take Lisbon and any other two Walkmen albums, so that you have close to three hours of uninterrupted Walkmen, and put them on shuffle. If you love The WM, this will be Heaven, if you are hater, this will be torture, but one fact will overshadow all of the above—it all sounds the same. It’s the ultimate genre dis, but here it’s unavoidable. After twenty minutes, the circular rhythms and twinkling guitars all blend into one another, and it becomes almost impossible to tell where one song ends and another begins. It’s one long, vaguely pleasant hit of electric xanax. Great songs don’t lose distinction like that. What you are listening to is a sonic formula.
Parodoxically, listened to on it’s own, Lisbon is clearly the best album The Walkmen have ever made, and totally distinguishes itself.
Within the album itself, there is more stylistic variety than they’ve ever shown, from a big-sounding rocker like “Angela Surf City” to what can only be described as a horn-backed hymnal in “Stranded,” and the rootsy rhythm under “Blue as Your Blood” sounds almost like Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire.” The commonality in each track, though, is that they seem to have found a more subtle approach to the overall process of emo-ism. Leithauser’s rock lamenting has not changed an ounce (there is an actual track called “Woe Is Me”) but on Lisbon it rides more subtle and well-conceived structures than it has in the past. Instead of a never-ending spiral stairway to emo-heaven, the sound picks its spots and gives shape to Leithauser’s complaints, instead of its usual habit of saturating our ears with the general sound of “Waaaaah.” The results are not just actual songs, but some very good songs. It’s still not possible to tell what, specifically, Leithauser is singing about, but for the first time it seems clear that he is telling a story—one worth listening to.
Lisbon, like The Walkmen themselves, is too good to be totally dismissed. If you thought The Walkmen, along with all of their brethren, were crap, Lisbon makes an ignorant cynic out of you. Still, at the end of the therapy session, it’s the familiar sad, guitar-laden story, and if you think for a second that the Walkmen wouldn’t sound better doing a spot-on cover of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” than doing their own indie weep-wanking, you’re blinded by the indie-light.
The reality is that The Walkmen are neither great nor horrible. A song like “While I Shovel The Snow,” on Lisbon, might be the best song ever written about a guy staring at the sky, depressively reflecting on his life while he shovels snow. The meandering guitar on that song may be the very sound self-reflexive melancholy, the kind where you’re almost sure that you’re the cause of your own indefinite, semi-adult suffering. But it’s still a song about a guy who spends way too much time thinking about himself. I mean, I’ve had that feeling before. I think may have even been shoveling snow when it happened. But I got over it.