Words by Taylor Hobson

The Walkmen have long been one of the most reliable bands of the last decade. Each major release has successfully reaffirmed their ability to ride the line between chaos and control, often in surprising ways. At its core, mirrored and supported by the drums, bass, and guitar, is Hamilton Leithauser III’s wavering yell, vulnerable in its passion. And just as the vocals sound like they’re perpetually pushing into the red, the Walkmen’s bread-and-butter is their ability to keep everything together while at the verge of going off the rails.

In previous albums, anthems like “The Rat “manifest that push-and-pull in the form of an intense drive, striving toward a limitless goal; “The New Year,” while more deliberately paced, pushes a keyboard into its chorus that’s just slightly off tempo enough to sound like a kamikaze attack on the first part of the song, forcing the drums to speed up manically for just long enough to catch up and wrangle it into submission. These self-inflicted struggles allow the Walkmen to appear always victorious and only sometimes furious.

Their longevity owes a debt to the band’s reliable middle ground, sacrificing power and velocity without compromising any sense of excitement, and Lisbon really highlights this talent with its refreshing clarity of sound. On paper this may sound as if the bite has been removed from a notoriously toothy group; however, the loyalty to their trademark sense of control while pushing the boundaries of loose, meandering elements transforms what might have been a diluted energy into vibrancy and restrained confidence.

Both clearly shine in the opener “Juvelines,” in which Leithauser’s newest accusatory ultimatum (“You’re one of us / Or one of them”) finds him airing grievances through a knowing smile rather than a curled lip. “Angela Surf City” comes closest to revisiting their earlier pure aggression but with a restraint that keeps them from pushing into punk’s territory. The song’s abrupt ending almost draws attention to this absence.

The biggest obstacle for non-devotees of the Walkmen might be the same subtle evolution that justifies their fans: Someone jumping into the last three albums at once will inevitably feel that the band gets a little lost languishing in their mid-tempo catalogue. “All my Great Designs” is the most typical Walkmen song on Lisbon, though it still retains its own identity. That trademark sparse riff down the guitar neck and click of the drums can still sustain the listener’s attention and distract them from any hopes of bursting aggression that never comes. In the end, the band seems to have taken a breath and stepped back from their forceful energy, but the tweaks they’ve made in terms of clarity and brightness provide just the right amount of change to remain malleable without losing their identity.

The Walkmen
Fat Possum Records
© September 14th, 2010



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