Up until “A Hundred Miles Off” (2006), the record they don't feel proud of but that also was the decisive moment that would show them which direction to take, The Walkmen used to deliver albums that were rather notable. After that, they started to write brilliant pieces, and they haven't stopped since. First came “You & Me” (2008), on which the sublime guitars started to acquire that typical glass ringing sound, and then, their masterpiece “Lisbon” (2010), the start of a new life for the band, with a brightly shining sound which was overwhelming. And now that they must show they're still up there. Confirming their artistic high, they’ve come up with a full-length they called “Heaven”; a rigorous and transcendental sixth album (if we don't count their Harry Nilsson tribute LP) that crowns them as the kings of sober guitar rock, perfectly summing up their career. A catalogue of both virtues and defects, a demonstration of their achievements but also of their flaws when it comes to pursuing that “melodramatic popular song” they like to talk about so much. This is it; you take them or leave them, because it's unlikely they're going to change a lot from here on.
The Walkmen's music isn't, nor has it ever been, particularly easy to digest. It's lethargic and sombre, a brand of slow rock that gains strength to rise with a performing power that makes thousands of their pseudo fans go pale. In case anyone hasn't noticed, over the past five years The Walkmen have moved miles away from The Strokes, who everybody compared them with at the start of the century. While others walk around in their jeans, their tailor-made suits are the epitome of style, a style that looks for new horizons and wants to break down barriers with brilliant songs. Invoking the spirit of Ian Curtis, digging up the legacy of Sun Records, picking elements from such diverse styles genres as country and calypso, and taking influences from Rod Stewart's singing; their sound is exquisite and confirms that, as a band, they have always been something else.
“Heaven” is not as sonically immaculate as “Lisbon”, but there's no doubt that their ruggedness and barren style is deliberate. At the helm is the much sought after Phil Ek, who, contrary to the lustrous sound he recently blessed Father John Misty's “Fear Fun” with, produced the album austerely, giving all prominence to the band and their instruments. There's no room for precious embellishments like on some moments on “Lisbon” (“Stranded”), nor are there any excessively bright lights - just the right amount. And it's a light different from the silvery one on “You & Me”, too. This light is matt, strongly contrasting the most sombre moments (like “Southern Heart”, on which the pain is clearer than ever: “Tell me again how you loved all the men you were after”) with the most invigorating ones, like, for instance, “Nightingales”; where they sound like they want to recover the hurricane-like power of their early days.
And between both poles - between trial and error, but always sincere - they balance out all the songs. Sometimes falling and sometimes getting up, sometimes singing with courage and sometimes out of disgruntlement, dauntless and aggressive, like tumbler-toys that get up faster the harder you hit them. Leithauser's howls, ripping his throat on songs like “The Love You Love”, don't seem to need lyrics to transmit the emotion, as proven with the “oooh oooh ooohs” on “Nightingales”, “We Can’t Be Beat” and “Heaven”. And when they go poetic, the lyrics sound plain and aching, bumpy and lazy, playing with his love and circumstances as if they were broken puppets (“The Witch”, “Love Is Luck”). Always unleashing an impressive expressive ability, if we keep in mind how Spartan the source of it is. That's the soul of The Walkmen: minimal in appearance, grandiose in essence.