There are some albums that only seem appropriate in certain contexts, that require a specific set of conditions to be properly enjoyed. This phenomenon is practically an accepted truth, so much so that we hardly flinch when we see lists like “Best Break-Up Albums” or “Best Albums to Have Sex To”. It’s only natural to associate discs with experiences or circumstances. After all, they’re supposed to reflect and/or reinforce whatever the hell it is we’re feeling at the time. That’s not to say that there aren’t some full-lengths that suitable for any occasion, but a sizable chunk of my collection consists of albums that only make sense to me at particular times.
With Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone, the NYC-based group The Walkmen have crafted a soundtrack for the long, cold winter months. I’m not exactly sure why it comes across that way. It could be the black and white cover of young boys in their heavy overcoats smoking tobacco or perhaps the eerie organ effects. Maybe it’s evoked by frontman’s Hamilton Leithauser’s chilly, detached delivery, which makes him sound as though he’s singing through a frosted windowpane. Whatever the reason, the album has definitely got an unmistakable wintry feel.
Yet while The Walkmen may have gotten the general mood right, the songs themselves are incredibly thin. There’s nothing instantly engaging or, for that matter, memorable on Everyone Who Pretended. The soundscapes float by in an indistinguishable, foggy mist. Granted, mood albums are difficult to execute because the emotional range is inherently constricted, but that’s still no excuse for the frequent creative impasses. Songs like “They’re Winning” and the title track start off in the right direction and then promptly decide to roll over and play dead. It’s as if they forgot to convert their good ideas into actual songs.
Perhaps the most well-known and accepted paradigms of the winter album are The Cure’s Disintegration and The Delgados’ The Great Eastern. On both of those endeavors, the artists managed to articulate the depression and dreariness of a snowy February night without allowing those feelings to compromise the playing. Rather than tone down their attack or opt for spare instrumentation, they found a more effective way to convey the icy emotions. All too often bands that attempt a sombre album confuse drudgery with subtlety. Such is the case for The Walkmen. There’s no reason for these songs to get stuck in a holding pattern. I assume their paralysis is intended to underscore the mood, but it just comes off as uninspired.
However, that having been said, there are moments of quiet, unexpected splendor. The soft taps of the piano keys on “Wake Up” nicely approximate falling snowflakes. And “French Vacation” takes the listener for a stroll down the Riviera. These fleeting moments of beauty suggest that The Walkmen are capable of constructing much more skillful and rewarding songs. But at this stage, they seem to care more about preserving the feel of the record than flexing their songwriting muscles.
Of course, no review of The Walkmen would be complete without mentioning Jonathan Fire*Eater. Yes, it’s true that the band features former members of the much-hyped NYC has-beens. But in case you haven’t noticed from the review, there aren’t many similarities between The Walkmen and their former outfit. Not only have the former members of Jonathan Fire*Eater overhauled their sound but they’ve also opted to go the indie route in releasing Everyone Who Pretended, signing with the NYC-based StarTime International. The label is also home to French Kicks and Brendan Benson.
In any event, I have to admire The Walkmen for attempting an honest-to-goodness winter album. Few bands would have the audacity to undertake a record like this straight out of the gate. And in these times, such ambition is certainly laudable. Everyone Who Pretended may mostly fail, but it always makes sure to do so on its own resolute terms.