[5 September 2014]
Albums like Black Hours stump me—do I recommend them or not? It’s not strictly an issue of singles in a post-album musical landscape (When was the golden age of the album? Weren’t they always stripped for parts when they weren’t actively prefabricated?), though that discussion is a relevant tangent. Hamilton Leithauser’s debut solo album since The Walkmen announced an indefinite hiatus last year gets at a more complex problem of how we can listen to music.
I’ll begin unambiguously: I enjoy Black Hours, and I join the chorus of critics singling out Rostam Batmanglij for producing—somewhat literally—the finest cut here, which I’ll get to. My first listen was deeply apprehensive. The Walkmen, with Spoon, Wussy, and Sleater-Kinney, were among the 2000’s finest rock outfits—they also had the best outfits. But I always gritted through their really slow ones, generously called “torch songs”, but when Heaven recast their soporific impulses as actual lullabies, I thought it self-awareness rather than maturation. The handsome, restrained cover of Black Hours channels the unadulterated crooner that previously only inflected Leithauser’s delivery, and I was worried that without the exuberant, metronomic C86 chirrup drawing the sketch that Leithauser colored, our singer would, as it were, walk onto a shiny black stage with shiny black loafers and sit with a subtle, sophisticated emotionality on a stool placed just off center.
“5 AM” confirmed my fears, every part the indolent, Duke Silver-y stylings I feared. Then the pizzicatos of “The Silent Orchestra” warmed me to the album’s intentions and possibilities.
And then the third track “Alexandra” flounces in with a stomp impatient not just with the rhythmic languor of the first two cuts but impatient also with my doubt. Hooked by androgynous backup singers and the kind of piano figure for which virtuosos insult pop’s audience and by which pop’s audience is too enthused to care, the two-and-a-half minutes splinter with a jubilation that canny production implies cannot be contained by digital recording methods. If Modern Vampires of the City weren’t, this would be Rostam Batmanglij’s masterwork—down to his harmonica jaunt.
In fact, the rest of the album never really recovers from this one. Mostly this is a result of very good music getting too ambitious for its own purposes. “11 O’Clock Friday Night”, which has the misfortune to follow “Alexandra”, avails itself well thanks to clicking percussion and a gorgeously overdriven guitar—not thanks to the lyrics about a taciturn, presumably female, figure leaving Leithauser’s lovelorn narrator to his natural state. The music, including Leithauser in his purely sonic capacities, is often just on the edge of sustaining the Greatest Generation lyrical content, but only when a song whips by with “Alexandra”‘s speed am I able to overlook the “Self Pity” the verbal meaning too often takes as a telos beyond topos. But even with Leithauser’s (or his characters’) annoying chauvinism, a by-product of adopting midcentury tropes, “11 O’Clock Friday Night” really is wonderful. Meanwhile, “I Don’t Need Anyone” swings and shuffles with a guitar that sounds like a night rain, and “Self Pity” hybridizes Prince, Mac DeMarco, and Frank Sinatra into a torch song good enough for any of them—okay, maybe not Prince.
This is a question about knowledge production. The album is grand and gorgeous, and for me, that’s enough. But when do you start pushing an album on your friends? I trust my musically involved social circle to make it past the bummer opener, and if they sit through “Alexandra”, maybe even un-self-consciously bouncing along to it, the rest of the songs sustain remarkable beauty. What, then, stops my tongue? The same reason I don’t recommend Ravel or Brahms to my friends. Beauty is as great as anything to fill a life with, but there is no lack of beautiful music—people who make such a claim aren’t looking hard enough (which means not at all), or they’ve given up on aural pleasure. Their choice, but I’m not among them, and if you’re reading this, you’re probably not either. That said, if you like Ravel, dig this. If Ravel feels like an intellectual indulgence, avoid it. Or, hey, allow yourself the indulgence. Listen to Black Hours and skip dessert.