We listen to music for many reasons, but one of the most mysterious is the pursuit of feelings we don’t like to experience — heartbreak, loneliness, regret. We listen to songs that remind us of how it feels to hurt, even when pain is the last thing we need.
This sounds strange out of context, but what we’re doing is not quite creating a feeling, but looking at it from the outside, seeing its shape and the force of its impact without bearing its weight. Sure, this is a form emotional voyeurism, but there’s something else going on. We seek understanding and communion, and by experiencing simulated emotion, we’re better able to brace for the real thing when it arrives; we learn that we’re not alone.
Hamilton Leithauser made a career singing songs that sound like fading memories with his former band, the Walkmen. Rostam Batmanglij, who uses his first name as his stage name, pushed Vampire Weekend, the band for which he served as a songwriter, producer, and multi-instrumentalist for almost ten years, in a similar direction. Together with lead singer Ezra Koenig, Rostam moved the band from the wry, winking sensibility of its self-titled debut album to the existential ruminating that colored its most recent, 2013’s Modern Vampires of the City.
So when Rostam and Leithauser teamed up for two songs on Leithauser’s first solo album, 2014’s Black Hours, the collaboration made an intuitive sense. Neither has much interest in the postures of disaffected cool that came to be synonymous with a certain kind of indie rock band in the first decade of the millennium. They’re serious about matters of the heart and soul, and each performs — or in Rostam’s case, arranges — without irony. They mean what they say.
Their first collaborative album, I Had a Dream That You Were Mine, fixates upon lost or unrequited love. In aggregate, you get the sense Leithauser’s narrators are the kinds of people who are most comfortable longing for an idealized version of love that exists only in its absence. They don’t seem like they can handle the work a serious relationship requires. This is not an admirable trait, and it proves that Leithauser is a great vocalist, because his characters only seem like emotionally-stunted romantics when his lyrics are detached from his interpretations. When sung, his characters attain a tragic dignity. They are not fighting for themselves, but for everyone who’s ever wanted something he can’t have. They are spokesmen, martyrs.
On “1000 Times”, the album’s opening track, he takes a flimsy premise — dreaming of unreturned love — and gives it stakes. This happens when Leithauser’s tenor reaches toward its upper register, tightening and revealing its coarse texture. Obsessive longing is an intensely private experience, but through Leithauser, it is exploded and filtered through unexamined self-pity. It is ugly to look at, but comforting to know it exists outside yourself. Leithauser sings most of the album from this place, and he creates a magnetic pull toward his perspective. His former bandmates in the Walkmen seemed to recognize this, and built their arrangements around his voice. Their movements tended to converge on his, concentrating a song’s emotional content on a fixed point.
Rostam works from a different space. In his compositions, you hear a little curiosity, a little chaos. His music arrives in discrete pieces, more interested in contrast than overtones. It is sculpted, not found. Sometimes, this is too much. A singer with as much elemental force as Leithauser demands a larger share of the spotlight. He is the sort of artist who pulls a song into his orbit and cuts away the frills. In Rostam, there is a desire to test sounds against each other, to find just the right frequency to change a song’s center of gravity.
There are moments on I Had a Dream when their perspectives lock together and strike you in the gut. One of these moments comes during “When the Truth Is…” as the chorus arrives and Leithauser clashes against the squall of a saxophone and processed drums. In this collision, there is the sound of self-doubt, the rush of embarrassment and regret that comes with the return of a humiliating memory. There is a pang of recognition, a moment of analysis, and relief that it is not your burden to bear. Not yet, at least.