On their sophomore long play album Bows and Arrows, the Walkmen suffer to find outrageous fortune as they urge their fans to take arms against a sea of troubles. While their debut, Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone, buckled under the weight of diffuse aural collages and a smattering of lyrical non-sequitors, their self-produced second album takes flight with more focused song structures and storytelling narratives. There is a new urgency and immediacy found here that illustrates a band delving into the mundane aspects of life and battling their way to some sort of modern self-help solution across the vista of these 11 tracks. Those looking to pigeonhole the Walkmen will readily flock to comparisons between this band and U2, which seem to center around the similarity between the drumming of Matt Barrick and the axe slinging of Paul Maroon to that of their Irish counterparts. The truth of the matter is that the Walkmen have synthesized many aspects of popular culture into the tired format of rock music and somehow have manipulated it into a harrowing dissection of the mundane possibilities of everyday life.
This revelation is no more obvious than on the album opener, “What’s in It for Me” where vocalist Hamilton Leithauser picks up where he left off on their last album. Direct in nature the song focuses on the ego present in all human interaction. Based around organ and drums in the verse and a lilting guitar line in the chorus, this track creates a clear mental image of Leithauser lamenting in his bedroom while a distorted music box filters through the background. Part of the charm here is Leithauser’s delivery as his voice always sounds one note blown, painting the image of a world-weary and blasé troubadour.
Much discussed and much hyped, “The Rat” may be the finest hour for the Walkmen to date. It’s a “shake your head and dance like you just don’t care” anthem that relies on all of the best elements of music. Maroon’s guitar churns, wails and erupts as Leithauser spits, “You’ve got a nerve to be asking a favor/ You’ve got a nerve to be calling my number/ Can’t you hear me?/ I’m beating on the wall.” This is an emotive masterpiece that finds the Walkmen channeling their newfound maturity into bursts of venom and offsetting them with a singsong low-key break that highlights the ferocity of the choruses. At the end of the year this may end up as one of the finest songs of 2004.
Part of the allure of the Walkmen is their ability to drastically change tempos and styles without making the music sound forced. After the maelstrom that is “The Rat”, the band steps back and releases an understated performance on “No Christmas While I’m Talking” which pushes Leithauser’s vocals back into the mix and finds the band tempering some of their energy. While this track doesn’t have any standout moments the placement of it in the album order after “The Rat” demonstrates that this band is not just thinking about songwriting and performances, but also album sequence, which we know is an essential ingredient in producing a classic.
Just when it seems that the Walkmen have pulled out all of the stops they unleash the soon to be cult favorite, “Little House of Savages”. Revolving around a drum corps tom beat the tempo cranks up only to stop just shy of that displayed on “The Rat”. The rhythm section is in full effect here as Barrick and bassist Peter Bauer provide both the melody and pace for the other members to follow. Maroon’s guitar clanks against the percussive beat and in a surprising turn, Martin’s organ provides the overriding melody for Leithauser to drawl over.
Once again shifting styles and methods, “Hang on Siobhan” is an old saloon serenade that utilizes barrelhouse piano to tell the tale of a day sleeping bar patron. The song follows him through his nightly haunts as he joins in a song sung wrong, enjoys the camaraderie of drinks with other drunks, and muses on the memories of a missing mystery girl that he only refers to as Siobhan. This is an effective somnambulist valentine that demonstrates the more poignant side of the Walkmen.
The album comes to a fitting close with title track, “Bows and Arrows”. By this point we’ve seen all of the Walkmen’s tricks and are somehow comforted when Barrick kicks in with his signature military shuffle and when Martin begins to shift deep in the fretboard of his guitar we feel at home. The message and theme of this album is brought full circle as Leithauser ambles in and releases us from duty with the phrase, “There is nothing for you here” setting us free after three-quarters of an hour absorbing these tales. Much in the way a drunk will ramble on as long as someone is buying them drinks, this album comes to a close just as we refuse to buy the band another round. The band becomes churlish and antagonistic sending a clear message. We don’t have to go home, but we can’t stay here.
Bows and Arrows is an album that would have made England’s immortal bard, William Shakespeare, proud. This is a work that blends a preoccupation with both the maudlin and mundane with the musical sensibility of the Factory Records collection. In a dramatic step forward the Walkmen have authored an album that is nothing short of a whirling dervish of passion, romance and theatrics on the grandest scale.