Jorge Luis Borges once claimed of his life that “in the long run, all of it would be converted into words. Particularly the bad things, since happiness does not need to be transformed: happiness is its own end.” This isn’t another nod to the tortured artist but rather to the nature of happiness. That happiness does not invite exploration because it does not need to be explained. It does not need to be intellectualized or resolved. It, in its most honest form, simply is. Of course, this idea has not stopped people from trying to relate happiness through art, though every time they do it’s clear how difficult it is. The things we think of as hard subject matter — loss, death, isolation in all its iterations — look like child’s play in comparison. It’s hard to be happy, especially in music, without being cheesy or thin or clichéd or just blinded to the weakness of your own work.
And yet the Walkmen prove, to some extent, that a happy record can be made with Heaven. We’ve watched the band grow up, from the scrappy, brittle, angular rockers of their early work to the more luxuriant yet smoldering pop purveyors of their last two great records, You & Me and Lisbon. Heaven is both a continuation and a refinement of those records. Where those records rippled out with elegance yet clung to rasps and barbs at the far edges of their sound, here everything is polished to a sheen, laid bare. The guitars aren’t quite as drenched in echo, sometimes Hamilton Leithauser’s voice isn’t the brash second coming of Rod Stewart. There is restraint in Heaven, and yet — under Phil Ek’s production, and with assistance from the likes of Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold — the album feels warmer, even more lush than its predecessors.
This is a record that revels in quiet, which becomes clear right away on the country-roll-cum-doo-wop opener “We Can’t Be Beat”. In place of the usual wandering guitars and Leithauser’s honeyed bleating, we get a simple acoustic guitar, and Leithauser singing quietly, even plainly. That it is so unassuming is what makes it such a brash start. It sounds like an ending, with Leithauser quietly admitting to being anything but the Duke of Earl, to feeling run down, and yet, later in the song, he asks for “a life that need correction” because, he says, “nobody loves perfection.”
The song stretches out, with Pecknold singing behind Leithauser, but it’s a more pastoral sound for the band, a wide open terrain on which the Walkmen can continue this life in progress. If it’s an album about happiness, they make clear on “We Can’t Be Beat” that this happiness is a working model, that it can and will change. And so we start an album that is both totally contented and grounded and yet still wandering. “Gone is the land of mystery,” Leithauser sings on “Love is Luck” and what is next is anybody’s guess. Here, though, that is presented not as worry, but as possibility, even opportunity. What gets left behind is the sour young man, the “Heartbreaker” of track three. Instead, over the throwback organ sway of “The Witch”, things are exactly what they claim to be — “a kiss is a kiss, a smile is a smile.”
The Walkmen present themselves as grown-ups, and Heaven as a mature album not about finding out what you want, but asserting the goodness of what you’ve already found, what you’ve already figured out. They dismiss false romanticism on the quiet, balladry of “Southern Heart”, making a simple declaration of love while the subject recounts past not-really-broken hearts. And, all over the record, the band pays shouting tribute to their children (“Song for Leigh”) and best friends (“Heaven”) and, in the end, this record starts to feel like a big ol’ lovefest.
As such, it’s an album that takes its time and feels relaxed, particularly through the quiet middle of “Southern Heart”, “Line By Line”, and “Nightingales”. These quiet moments are compelling, but when you hit the driving late-record number “The Love You Love” or the tense quake of the title track, with their charging drums and sharp guitars and open-throated bellows, you are reminded what a great rock band the Walkmen are and — though the quiet moments have their charms — you do wish all this joy and certainty had a bit more of a pulse. It’s also an album that, like so many albums about happiness, can sometimes sound a bit too schmaltzy. You can’t fault Leithauser for singing so sweetly to his daughter on “Song for Leigh” or to his best friend on “Heaven”, but the declarations of those songs feel insular, only for that one person, and the rest of us are left to merely listen in.
But these are the pitfalls you risk when you go after the kind of sunburst of a record the Walkmen have attempted — and pulled off quite well — on Heaven. It is not their finest hour, since its 47 minutes end up feeling longer than either You & Me or Lisbon, but it may be their most compelling. It’s an interesting progression to go from a connection (You & Me) to an ideal place on terra firma (Lisbon) to a paradise (Heaven), the state we’d all like to be in. With nothing left to push against, the Walkmen pushed against themselves, against their sound, and while they might not totally remake themselves here, they prove they are still capable of surprising us, even as they remind us of what makes them so good. Happiness may not need to be transformed, but when it’s articulated as well as it often is on Heaven, it’s worth digging into.