Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Walkmen- You & Me

Driving home from a girlfriend's apartment after almost no sleep on some morning this past November, the dawning realization that things weren't going to work between us was somehow literally mirrored by the overcast November morning's lack of sunshine. I had been listening to You & Me by The Walkmen the night before yet it took until this moment for the record to hit home. Inarguably the band's most relationship focused album, its by turns defeated, ecstatic, romantic, cynical, and world-weary music seemed to perfectly encapsulate the things I was feeling. On 'New Country', Hamilton Leithauser sang "I'm back on my own/don't worry about me/I got no more baggage", and it was as if someone I had never met was telling me how I would eventually feel.

After the claustrophobic production of A Hundred Miles Off and the sloppy, just-for-fun cover of the entire Pussycats album by John Lennon and Harry Nilsson, The Walkmen recorded You & Me, a much more intimate, sparse, and finessed album. Songs on their first two albums demonstrated that the band were often at their best when as few instruments as possible were employed; while the full band sound of A Hundred Miles Off worked for the most part, its songs seemed less distinct and memorable. Some critics and listeners mistake the sound of You & Me for being too mellow but I always think of it as the band finally maturing to the point where their fascination with classic 60s and 70s albums and nuanced, inventive playing fully blossomed. Why? Well, because they had finally grown into it. No longer were they 20-something New Yorkers playing at being too old and tired of the night life. Now they embodied it.
There is a genuine maturity to this record, a difficult to define sense of craft and professionalism that never comes at the cost of sounding too intellectual and cold. I must've listened to 'Donde Esta La Playa' a dozen times in a row while driving to work on certain mornings, the detailed, spacious production allowing Matt Barrick's criminally underappreciated skills as a drummer to shine, his tom-toms sounding somewhere between a jazz drummer and slow motion surf rock. Elsewhere, Leithauser is given plenty of room to himself on 'Long Time Ahead Of Us', the other instruments low in the mix, his every inflection and pause between lyrics timed for maximum effect. The Walkmen of the first three albums were a great band, but You & Me was the point where they began to make music for the ages. Bows + Arrows felt very timely; You & Me feels timeless.

No one makes records like The Walkmen, so it's safe to say that no one makes relationship-y albums like them, either. I suspect that each listener will get something different out of You & Me, the lyrics and atmosphere broad enough that you can latch onto the swagger and confidence of 'In The New Year' and the romantic pledge of 'Red Moon' and miss out on the break-up stuff entirely. The spacious, detailed production and bare-minimum-instruments-necessary songwriting can also reflect different states of being, whether it's a kind of simulacra of the loss and new emptiness you feel or a soundtrack that gives the world a hopeful, wide open feel, as if you were listening to it in a house you just bought that has no furniture or furnishings so that all sounds are echoed and a bit larger-than-life.

Lisbon and Bows + Arrows are The Walkmen's true masterpieces, and indeed, part of why I love You & Me is that sometimes it sounds like a dry run forLisbon, in particular the brass section on 'Canadian Girl' that points to the spectral horns that haunt Lisbon's 'Stranded.' Yet I listen to You & Me more often because it means more to me, has become for me what Blood On The Tracks was for Dylan fans back in the 70s. This is music for that moment when you wake up in the morning and have briefly forgotten that you no longer have a girlfriend. This is music for people who react to loss by turning insular and wanting to travel the world. This is music for lonely Sunday nights and defeated Monday mornings. Yet this, too, is music for accepting yourself and starting to put the pieces back together. It's music for wanting to compare a new love's beauty to something, and you're only able to grasp for a strange line like how (to paraphrase 'Red Moon') on this night she shines like the steel on your knife. It's music for knowing you can never see someone again for your own good, and finally accepting this must be.

5 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

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