Little inspires dread in music fans than one of their favorite artists experiencing one of these three things: getting sober, getting religion, or getting a family.
All three life transitions usually indicate an artist is about to go in a new musical direction, inspired by their acuity and happiness. Unfortunately, that newfound direction is almost certain to be boring. In rock and roll, contentment is the enemy of excitement. Religion usually leads to jamminess and self-righteousness (see: Bob Dylan’s Slow Train Coming), sobriety usually leads to a softening of necessary rough edges (see: The Hold Steady’s Heaven is Whenever), and marriage and/or kids, worst of all, usually leads to flat-out boredom (Springsteen/Human Touch). On the flip side, the best albums are often written in the throes of divorce, addiction and godlessness.
Which brings us to The Walkmen.
Heaven, The Walkmen’s new album, finds the band married, in the fatherly way, and happy with their lives. But instead of spelling disaster, these developments have led to their best album thus far.
The advance press for Heaven almost scared me off from ever bothering to listen to it. The Walkmen are family men now, the articles and reviews cried, devoted fathers and husbands. The term “dad rock” was bandied about as both a compliment and an insult. The hideous label “brunch rock” even worked its way into the conversation. The songs on Heaven were slower, mostly ballads, and they were about how much these guys loved their families.
Good Lord. If that doesn’t sound like a recipe for a snooze of an album, I don’t know what does.
And I most liked the version of The Walkmen that showed up on Bows & Arrows — a band filled with swagger and youthful energy, who howled with desperation on “The Rat” and seemed frantic and distraught on “Little House of Savages.” I’ve generally liked their releases since then, but You & Me and Lisbon offered diminishing returns as the band grew progressively quieter. Very few rock bands grow into something resembling maturity well, and The Walkmen seemed unlikely to beat the odds.
So when I read about brunch rock, I figured my relationship with The Walkmen was probably dunzo.
I don’t want to hear songs about how much people love their kids. It’s boring. And the newly sober, holy, and/or married are usually rife with smug self-satisfaction as they rebuke and pity both their former selves and the poor, unenlightened masses.
But damn if Heaven isn’t a great album. The Walkmen manage to take potentially lethal subject matter and turn it into something new, interesting and enriching.
On album opener “We Can’t Be Beat,” Hamilton Leithauser sings:
I was the Duke of Earl
But it couldn’t last
I was the Pony Express
But I ran out of gas
This isn’t a guy who wants to wield his newfound happiness like a weapon. It’s a guy who can still relate to who he used to be, and is capable of looking back on that person with empathy, fondness and regret.
The lyrics throughout the album are intricate and nuanced, and are generally about enjoying moments of joy while you can, because they’re going to be gone soon. The music is slower, yes — there’s no “The Rat” to be found here, for certain — but it’s not dulled. The guitars develop into a bit of a swinging groove on the best tracks. It may not be music to swagger to, but it’s music to saunter to.
On the title track, Leithauser repeats “Remember, remember/All we fight for.” It’s a demand, a call to arms, a warning and a plea to the one he loves.
It’s an acknowledgment that while contentment may sound boring to the young (and many of the old), it’s not easily achieved. And as a whole, Heaven is proof that downtempo songs about wives and kids don’t have to suck. If anything, the album makes all those artists whose creativity faded in a similar situation look even worse by comparison.
As Leithauser puts it on “Love is Luck”:
After the fun
After all the bubblegum
There is no sweetness left on my tongue
Maybe no sweetness, but still something worth having.