The Walkmen Can't Be Beat on Heaven
See also: The Walkmen @ Clubhouse (2010)
The Walkmen didn't set out to write a "dad rock" album with their seventh album Heaven -- though that's exactly how the press received it.
It doesn't help that the record's photos feature the band members surrounded by their kids and spouses, or that songs like the high-and-lonesome "Southern Heart," the chiming "Song for Leigh," and the cresting title track all roll with an ease and ambling quality that comes from growing up and settling down. "It's remarkable how much [the record's art] shaped people's interpretations," singer/songwriter Hamilton Leithauser says from his home in Philadelphia, where he's catching up on "some domestic chores."
"We [had] been working music for 15 months or more, and we did this photo shoot in one day -- five hours -- but it had as much sway as any of the songs, or more [in how the record's message was perceived]."
Leithauser says the reaction doesn't bother him much.
"I mean, that's fine," he says. "I do like having those pictures on there. It felt like the record was really honest. We thought, 'If we're going to be half honest, let's just bare it all.' That's who we are. That's our whole gang right there. That's it."
Though the black-and-white photos of smiling babies and the nattily-dressed band members informed public opinion, opening track "We Can't Be Beat" didn't do much to challenge the idea that Heaven is -- at least in some part -- about leaving behind the thrashing nights of young manhood in favor of a more genteel lifestyle.
"I was the Duke of Earle," Leithauser sings. "But it couldn't last. I was the Pony Express, but I ran out of gas." It could be read as a poem to lost youth, but the triumphant chorus, over vocal-group harmonies courtesy of Fleet Foxes' Robin Pecknold, suggests something more enjoyable and rare. "We can't be beat," Leithauser belts, with the same sort of exuberance that made the band's anthem "The Rat" practically burst from hi-fi speakers on 2004's Bows + Arrows.
"It was supposed to be a quiet, intimate sound, like any classic doo-wop, like The Fleetwoods or something like that," Leithauser says of "We Can't Be Beat." "I wanted it to be first on the record, because I thought musically and lyrically it was a nice big statement."
The record's variety is a testament to the band's approach these days: "It's all about what's sounding good at the moment," Leithauser says. There are gentle moments, like the title track and "Southern Heart," but flashes of The Walkmen's fiery side, like "The Love You Love," too.
"It's fun to have some serious dynamics when we play," Leithauser says. "We can always blow the doors out, so it's fun to be able to try and get more nuance."
Heaven is a rare thing, a "mature" album that doesn't sacrifice intensity just to show off the songwriting. There's remarkable restraint on the part of the band, a group that's proven it can go off when that's what the songs dictate, but is as content to sit back in the pocket. "It's not the singer, it's the song," Leithauser sings in "Heartbreaker," a telling moment that suggests the group's creative approach.
"I thought it was kind of a funny reference to The Rolling Stones," he laughs, "but also I thought that it was a little bit funny that song is absolutely falling apart at that exact moment. I thought that was funny."
The Walkmen are scheduled to perform Sunday, September 16, at Crescent Ballroom.
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