The career of the Walkmen has, despite the description du jour of the band—drunken, lonely, dark, lost—remained remarkably steady. Since the band’s debut, 2002’s Everybody Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone, Hamilton Leithauser and his shambolic crew of castaways (Paul Maroon, Walter Martin, and Matt Barick from Jonathan Fire*Eater; Leithauser and Peter Bauer from the Recoys) have been accountable for at least two of three things every two years: an album release, a progression in sound, and at least one incredibly affecting song. Whether it’s the advertising jingle “We’ve Been Had”, the raging punk blast of “Bows + Arrows”, the hopeless loss embodied by “Another One Goes By” or “In the New Year”, the group can always be counted on to deliver a track among the best of a given year.
This dialogue between the band and the fans is what leads Lisbon to be, at first, a somewhat jarring and underwhelming experience. Longtime fans of the band will note that the many tinges of Latin rock and pop instrumentation from A Hundred Miles Off have returned here, while the production is much crisper than ever before. In particular, the guitar has retained the group’s trademark sheen but dropped many of its shoegaze inflections. The result is a Walkmen album in which Leithauser’s vocals are not only a spectral presence throughout the album, but at times a remarkably translatable one as well. His vocals remain drunken and loose, but they are no longer unhinged, and with his boost in the mix comes songs like single “Blue as Your Blood” where every word is not only captivating, but understood. And “Woe Is Me” is the closest the band has come yet to adding surf rock to their oeuvre.
After the initial feelings of been there, done that creep away, Lisbon does reveal itself to have something very new to offer Walkmen fans: its victorious attitude. Whether it’s the macaroni brass of “Stranded”, the light-hearted bounce of “Woe Is Me” and “Juveniles”, or “Victory” for its lyrics, Lisbon is certainly an album that confronts Leithauser’s familiar ruminations on sadness and lost loves. But the vibe of these stories often feels more aloof and accepting of life’s great mysteries than confounded and downtrodden. “Stranded” feels like a minimalist take on Motown balladry, injecting life into a tale that sounds as dreary as they come: “There’s broken glass all around my feet / In my place, so carelessly”. And yet, one would rather slow dance hand in hand than drink alone to the music behind his lament. “Torch Song” is similarly triumphant in the name of drunken losers, complete with a doo wop choir cooing in the background. And Leithauser himself seems to enjoy the story, taking his punches as they come with more curiosity than outright regret.
Ultimately, it’s these injections of brightness that lift Lisbon out of the ambitious muck that claimed most of A Hundred Miles Off for mediocrity. Sure, it’s not an album that’s going toe to toe with Bows + Arrows or You & Me. But Lisbon is an important step for the band, as they take everything they’ve learned from the previous eight years and find ways to improve on nearly all their mistakes while forgetting nothing that makes them who they are. Lisbon doesn’t have any truly standout tracks—perhaps “Blue as Your Blood” or the closing couplet come closest—and thus it may not do much of a service to lesser fans of the band. Lisbon feels transitional in that the band are clearly hurting for new ways to display their heartache, but it also feels triumphant in both the ways it presents itself and summarizes the band’s arc to this point. Lisbon might leave plenty of listeners unsure what more the band has to offer us in the coming decade, but on its own there’s little to be disappointed with. Another highly competent, easily digestible slice of what the Walkmen, and only the Walkmen, do so well.