I'm content when this music's on, but I'm not here to be content.
Something about the Walkmen's previous albums made them sound urgent. The music off those first two discs was filled with songs that needed to be made. Maybe it was just the mythology taking over: I imagine Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone being made around garbage can fires and lukewarm ramen noodles. I imagine that Bows + Arrows came under happier circumstances, but from a band who's seen enough to be unsure of the world even as they grow in confidence in their music. A Hundred Miles Off opens like Jimmy Buffet playing in the subway.
This could be a good sign. It could mean that the group can let loose of the drama of "The Rat" (the song that, along with an earlier Saturn commercial's use of "We've Been Had", put them on the borderline between underground and known). Unfortunately, that doesn't happen. "Louisiana" starts the album off with an AM groove that never manages to matter. The song's lyrics almost get somewhere emotional, but nothing actual manifests. The Walkmen seem content, regardless of what's going on in the narrator's life (he's sleeping "through half the day" while a storm starts up "a hundred miles away").
While the opener's okay enough, it only takes until the third track for the band to really stumble. On "Good for You's Good for Me", memorable vocalist Hamilton Leithauser takes a turn toward the excessively Dylan. He's always been in danger of this, but his personal rasp and idiosyncratic delivery have always kept him unique. Here he gives up his usual burning for a sincere but half-hearted mumbling, and the dull music and messy production don't do anything to pull him back. Paul Maroon's strum sounds like something he came up with minutes earlier, but not in an off-the-cuff rock 'n' roll way. Just in a lazy background music way.
And that's what really does the Walkmen in on this record -- the music never suggests we should care what they're talking about. "Emma, Get Me a Lemon" might be an anxious narrative of struggle, of discerning the context of reuniting, but it sounds like a band asking its friend for a piece of fruit. Successor "All Hands and the Cook" falters even moreso ("Emma" at least had some noteworthy drumming to redeem it). Less than halfway through the record, it's possible to forget that a previously very intense band is playing in the background.
The Walkmen have always had songs that draw you into their world; in fact, Bows + Arrows was more or less full of them. Leithauser's always been good at verbally creating a mood, even when he drifts more toward impressionism than explicit expression. On Hundred, he sounds as earnest as ever, yet it doesn't seem to be clicking, in part because the music isn't as gripping. This disconnect results in the band's songs turning into paintings that are pleasing, but not crowd-drawing. They're in the gallery's hallway instead of the main exhibition hall.
Even so, the Walkmen don't suffer a complete disaster, because, most simply, their songs aren't bad; they're just not riveting. More important, though, the disc has a number of tracks that work. "Tenleytown" has a strong mix of piano and horns supporting the album's standard guitar sound, and drummer Matt Barrick, the real star of this album, carries the track. "This Job Is Killing Me" strips away some art for some snare-pounding and bass-driving; surely not the most incisive of tracks, but the aggression puts down the stagnation that the album could have landed in.
When the Walkmen are on, they can be as compelling as ever, but they've just spent too much time creating television-drama background music and not enough energy stretching themselves. After two strong albums, the group should be hitting their stride, but instead it feels like they've just fallen into step.