The Walkmen’s Lisbon

by Weston Cutter

Despite 2010 being a freakishly good year for music, we’ve covered it almost not at all here at Corduroy. Let’s correct that, starting now, by talking about one of the year’s best and most satisfying albums: The Walkmen’s Lisbon, which has now been out plenty long enough for everyone to know just how amazing this thing is.

Before anything else, though, a video. Here’s “In the New Year,” from their last album, You and Me.

If you don’t already know The Walkmen, knowing that song’s critical just to have a sense of who they are and what they do. That shiningly blocky guitar work, and the propulsive, lose-yrself full-speed-ahead of the drums and bass, and Hamilton Leithauser’s upper-register yowling (and his yowling about something coming up, about something impending, not necessarily about what’s going on directly in front of him)? These have been key Walkmen ingredients.

Here’s what sort of shitty, I think more for The Walkmen than anyone: the track that’s getting the most play on Lisbon is “Angela Surf City,” which they recently played on Last Call with Carson Daly. Check it:

Could “Angela” be an outtake from any of their earlier albums? It absolutely could. Does the song have the same sort of hang-on-tight energy as “The Rat”? Indeed. Why could it possibly be a bad thing that this song’s the one getting the most attention? (Let’s rephrase: it’s not that it’s bad—The Walkmen are one of a dozen or so bands that make American music worth believing in at present; any attention they get is a good thing—it’s just maybe, in this case, too bad.)

It’s too bad that “Angela’s” such an attention-grabber because Lisbon‘s a quieter, less-rushed beast of an album—it is, in fact, the perfect two to the one of the band’s last album, You and Me, which found the band taking steps away from the jagged brightness and occasional associative goofery (“Emma, Get Me a Lemon” for instance) of its first two albums and into a murkier, less clear, more gray, woolier sound and life (read a phenomenal interview with the producer for the last two albums here).

Which wooliness is furthered even more on Lisbon; here’s an in-studio at legendarily great KEXP of the album opener “Juveniles”:

Take a moment and just dig how the song closes: “Could she be right / when she repeats / I’m the lucky one…” Note the (intentional) ambiguity of just who’s the lucky one–the song’s she or its speaker. Note how, immediately after this nice if ambiguous moment, Leithauser’s cheery, mayhemic voice brings the song to close with a repeated You’re one of us or one of them, yet can’t you hear that smile? Look at the video: see that smile? Doesn’t there seem an ironic feel to that moment, as if, no, there isn’t polarity, there isn’t this dichotomy of us v. them: there’s both sides, and all of us, and we’ll claim to fall at one end of the spectrum or the other, but the comedy is that the categories we so fervently like to believe in and cling to, those are false.

More evidence? Check the lyrics for “While I Shovel the Snow”:

 

Well they say, can’t please everyone

Well I’m stuck on a winning streak

Well today there’s clarity

And tonight I see tomorrow.

 

All at once, the winter’s here

All the locks have frozen over

As I look in back of me

See a shape beside the walkway

 

Half of my life I’ve been watching

Half of my life I’ve been waking up

Birds in the sky could warn me

There’s no life like the snow life

 

So for now, I’ll take my time

For now, I can’t be bothered

But I learned a lot of things

But I fudged a lot of numbers

 

Once again, the winter’s here

All the locks have frozen over

So I look in back of me

See a shape beside the walkway.

 

Half of my life I’ve been watching

Half of my life I’ve been waking up

Birds in the sky could warn me

There’s no life like the snow life

 

Download the song below to hear how its music and lyrics conjoin, but the song all but screams lack of clarity: there’s no life but the snow life? If you’re reading “snow life” as something covered, something with its lines erased and its features uncleared, doesn’t the song feel like awfully high praise for the ambiguous, gray life? It’s all over the place in here, too: sure, he’s learned a lot of things, but he’s fudged a lot of numbers. Meaning he’s learned from making mistakes? Meaning he hasn’t learned anything at all—the fudged numbers undercutting the lessons he’s just claimed? Plus right from the start: today‘s he’s got/had clarity, but, already, tonight, he can see tomorrow: whatever clarity he’s got is fading fast, is gone as he gets it.

Look, this goes on an on, and I admit getting in too deep with this more philosophical stuff re: the Walkmen and their lyrical ambiguity may not be the best way to serve these guys and their work—it is, after all, rock and roll, and what you should do is go see them live and get yr ass lit up by how phenomenal a live band they are.

But, as important, especially for those of us who’ve either already or will soon make our way from our twenties: The Walkmen, with their last two discs, are evidencing remarkable growing up, are allowing their work to push further and further into gray, further from the fist-tight black-and-white that’s so seductive and youthful and, often, 100% wrong. The Walkmen are not a grown-up band: they’re, rarer than that, a growing-up band. Let’s end at the beginning: for all the great music that’s come out this year, I can think of very few albums which so gorgeously and sing-along-ly treat maturing, treat accepting the fuzz and slow indistinction of all those things which, not so long ago, seemed simple as hell to be totally, totally sure about. You want music you’ll still be interested in in five years? In ten? Nab Lisbon, then You and Me, and then buy whatever these guys do next.

Download:

“Woe is Me”

“While I Shovel the Snow”