Reminiscing: The Walkmen

The Walkmen live

Towards the end of last year one of my favourite bands, The Walkmen, announced that they were embarking on an indefinite hiatus. Their career to date spans pretty much the period I deem to be the golden age of music, with the Brooklyn quintet churning out some of the best material of that time.

Since their stunning 2002 debut, Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me is Gone, the band have released six studio albums culminating in 2012’s Heaven. Both albums, released almost exactly ten years apart, open with similarly themed tracks – ‘They’re Winning’ & ‘We Can’t Be Beat’ – with the contrast in lyrical content displaying how Hamilton Leithauser has matured over this time.

The milestone was also marked, more significantly so, by an anniversary tour, which I had the pleasure of attending, coincidentally, the day after I arrived in this country for the first time. The extended setlist comprised of most of the songs folk turned out to see, however, towards the end of the performance, Leithauser turned to the audience for requests. Somehow he heard my cry for ‘That’s the Punchline’ above everyone else’s and introduced the song with “…for this gentleman over here”, pointing in my direction.

Sorry to all those screaming for ‘Dónde Está La Playa’.

Inspired as much by the likes of Roy Orbison and Frank Sinatra as the New York garage rock scene from which they emerged, The Walkmen are as adept at composing a stripped back rock ‘n’ roll ballad as they are at belting out indie rock anthems, often fusing the two together.

No matter the style, one sonically distinctive element on each record is the messy, though controlled, guitars of Paul Maroon. Usually high in the mix, sometimes discordant, but always interesting and unique, Maroon’s playing provides warmth and comfort at times and gives the music an uneasy or restless edge at others.

Their masterpiece, You & Me, where they finally struck the sweat spot between garage rock and their more old-fashioned instincts, was released in 2008. My claim of “masterpiece” may be somewhat biased given that this album aided me through a break-up of my own, but there are other, less biased critics who would claim that this is objectively their peak.

The symbol crash, followed by the gentle rumbling accompanied by Maroon’s distinct guitar line in the opening seconds of the album, contrasted with the abrasive guitars and howls from Leithauser during the bridge; the similar experience provided during ‘On the Water’; the uncompromising yet somehow comforting chorus of ‘In the New Year’; the beautiful ‘Red Moon’, an acoustic ballad supplanted with an organ and horns; the heartbreaking ‘I Lost You’. These and many, many other highlights – all doused in Hamilton Leithauser’s stark, Leonard Cohen-inspired imagery and discerning observations (‘All the windows are blowing/The branches bending low’) – adorn this release, bringing it up to nothing short of a modern classic.

Back in 2008, a few months after the release of You & Me, I attended the subsequent tour in a small venue hidden below a vegan cafe in some back alley in Glasgow, Scotland – my first experience of the Walkmen live. When the band took the narrow, yet deep, stage I was, firstly, taken aback by the sheer height of Leithauser. Then, when the familiar rumble of ‘Dónde Está La Playa’ began and Leithauser’s vocal chords struck the first few lines of the verse, I knew I was witnessing one of the greatest shows I’d ever see. A sentiment that still holds today.

But it’s not all about their pinnacle. There is a whole host of excellent material available across all of their albums – A Hundred Miles Off being the only weaker point, yet still containing classic Walkmen tracks like ‘All Hands and the Cook’ and cover of Mazarin’s ‘Another One Goes By’ – from the more raw, garage rock sound found more frequently on the earlier releases, to the more refined qualities displayed on Lisbon and Heaven.

In the past six years the band have reached their peak and managed to follow up it respectably with two stellar releases. Maybe they made the decision that enough bands don’t: to split while ‘We’re [They’re] Winning’, rather than to continue for the sake of it. Whatever the reason, there is, and will continue to be, plenty of solo material available from several members of the band.

Let’s assume this were to spell the end for the Walkmen, I’d accept that. They’ve built up a sizeable back-catalogue, bursting with quality, have toured plenty and have recorded many freely-available sessions and live performances. I’d rather they didn’t continue if it spelled a diluting in quality.

So, just in case it is, here’s one to the Walkmen…I’m sorry we lost you.