The Walkmen are a group whose albums are defined by their respective openers. On their 2002 debut Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone, Hamilton Leithauser’s demur moans on “They’re Winning” hearkened back to the New York malaise and dissidence that defined the group’s citymate predecessors The Velvet Underground. The seminal follow-up Bows + Arrows saw a more ambivalent Leithauser, slowly realizing his rising stardom and his rapidly changing big-fish-place in his now not-so-small pond. From there, he became more settled, avoiding the traditional New York trappings with A Hundred Miles Off‘s opener “Louisiana.” But through all of these frantic changes, Leithauser and the Walkmen as a whole still seemed the underdogs, beaten down by something too deep for any of us to know.
But “Dónde Está la Playa”, the opener from the group’s latest effort You & Me, sees a strangely optimistic and complacent Leithauser, content with the battles that have colored the entirety of the group’s catalog. “Well it’s back to the battle today / And I wouldn’t have it any other way”, he boasts over a roulette table of stifled percussion and an uptempo bass line. There seems to be an energy behind the group that hasn’t existed in the past, the penultimate emancipation from the glum world of New York City streets and the grime that so comfortably covered their previous work. It’s no difficult task to discover what’s so different though: Leithauser (or someone with serious influence over the group’s collective songwriting) got himself a girlfriend.
The Walkmen’s earlier records were beautifully mundane, grim in all of the right places with subtle hints of joy and comfort. When Leithauser used to sing explicitly about happiness, it would more or less be about what it was like being Leithauser; not in the sense that he’s a big-time rockstar, rather a genuinely contented person, drinking with his buddies and just getting by. Behind his haunting voice, you could glean a sense of home, something inherently gleeful in the dreary mess of strained croons uttered. But on You & Me there are painfully explicit moments of schoolboy excitability and flirtation in several songs(“Canadian Girl”, “Long Time Ahead of Us”, “In the New Year”), not to mention in the album and song titles, which, for the first time in the group’s catalog, represent a collective pairing.
Like any good smitten boy, Leithauser has been taking some singing lessons to impress his young lady. Rather than the hollow Dylan-growl on the Walkmen’s previous records, his voice is fuller and smoother. It fills all of the gaps that gave it so much character, the metropolitan snarl of crushed Camel cigarette packs. Though this new-found bulk could just as easily be attributed to significantly cleaner production. Leithauser’s voice cuts through the paralyzing flood of deafening guitars on You & Me, whereas before, he was muddled, lost in the mass. On the aforementioned “In the New Year”, you can make out every note and word of his towering vocals, even amongst piercing keyboard feedback and crashing cymbals.
Though all of this is not to say that You & Me is markedly worse than their grittier material. Frankly, some of it is quite beautifully composed. “Long Time Ahead of Us” perfectly grasps what it’s like trying to go home with someone in the hope that it will be more than a one-night stand. And the psychedelic, substance-induced landscape of “On the Water” is undeniably the most poetic track the group has ever produced (“All the windows are glowing / branches bending low / skyline is swinging / rocking back and forth”).
The Walkmen typically can’t reel in this new optimism on You & Me, but it does work once in a while. Namely on “Four Provinces”, arguably the group’s most upbeat and sonically ambitious track. The choruses are heralded by over-your-head handclapping and complimentary rim shots, while the guitars drive the tempo. Leithauser’s crafted voice is perfectly suited for this fulfilled group sound. It becomes abundantly clear that it’s the group that needs to continue to progress rather than Leithauser regress. His voice has filled out, like an adolescent discovering girls and his true sound at the same time. But too often on You & Me the rest of the group sounds pedestrian, cautiously still and unambitiously sticking to what they know so well.
You & Me represents a turning point, one in which the group continues to perfect their sound, one hinted at on previous cuts like “Louisiana”. But the Walkmen can’t continue with this partially-fulfilled realization. They’ve outgrown the New York rock that made them famous. Leithauser is simply too large for the City’s claustrophobic guitars and frantic percussion.