Music Review: The Walkmen, “Heaven” (Fat Possum)
Rock ‘n’ roll does not usually grow up well — it was engineered to either stay forever young or age badly, and for bands showing signs that the anger of their youth is ebbing away, contentment can be the slippery slope leading to complacency. But in all their considerable wisdom, The Walkmen recognize on their blissful sixth album, “Heaven,” that happiness can be its own form of rebellion. So, on the back cover of “Heaven,” all five members of The Walkmen pose with their young children, and that photo, along with the gorgeously energized songs behind it, feels cooler and more defiant than a thousand exposed tattoos or cigarettes dangling from lips.
Consider the lyrics to the title song, which plays like a tougher-minded cousin to John Lennon’s “Grow Old With Me.” Singer Hamilton Leithauser, ever the intense air-puncher, tells his mate “Don’t leave me, you’re my best friend/All of my life, you’ve always been,” informing her that their “children will always hear romantic tales of distant years” as if he cannot wait to bore them with their stories. The album opens with “We Can’t Be Beat,” in which Leithauser pleads, “Give me a life that needs correction,” and insists that reaching perfection equals the end. It is a far cry from the early days of “We’ve Been Had” and “The Rat,” in which Leithauser’s world-weariness and pugnacious fury was “beating down your door,” and yet these attitudes, given extra lilt from Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold on background vocals, sound just as genuine and carry a surprising power.
Producer Phil Ek’s recent work with Fleet Foxes, Band of Horses and Father John Misty emphasized mystery and gauziness, which comported nicely with The Walkmen’s sound up through 2010′s “Lisbon,” but on “Heaven,” Ek sharpens the mix. In this environment, the up-tempo tracks get more punch (the smart and caustic “The Love You Love”) and ballads feel more immediate, less distant. So much of “Heaven” is men feeling good about life, but it’s also an album by a band getting better and sounding surprised by this development after more than 10 years together. The Walkmen sound like Walkmen on “Heaven,” and they are taking things that rock ‘n’ roll typically defined as uncool — parenting, domestic happiness — and presenting them as the radical, daring pursuits they always were.
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