Being in a band is a tricky prospect as it’s a delicate balancing act of egos and passions. It’s a miracle some bands last as long as they do. In November 2013, the Walkmen went on what vocalist Hamilton Leithauser called an “extreme hiatus”, something he later came to regret saying. A break can be healthy for a band, a way to pursue passion projects, rejuvenate the creative juices, and enjoy time away from each other. It’s what saved the Beatles from self-destructing before they recorded Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Not that I’m suggesting the Walkmen are on the same level as the Beatles, but they did have an excellent run to close out the 2000s and had a nice one-two punch of Lisbon and Heaven to open the 2010s. The latter had more upbeat and optimistic mood than previous releases. By that point, all the members of the band were fathers and the optimistic mood of the record reflected that. It was a far cry from the more angsty early days of the group, when they were lumped in with the so-called rock revival of the early 2000s, spearheaded by fellow NYC groups like the Strokes and Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Based on Art & Leisure, things are going okay during the hiatus.
There’s a real sense of ease to this record, as if fatherhood and entering his 30s has instilled Martin with a confidence that is sometimes lacking is those difficult years in one’s early and mid-20s. He’s as content as McCartney was on Ram and there’s a similar sense of infectious joy to Art & Leisure.
Contentedness is at times the worst enemy of art, conflict keeps a piece of art interesting, it’s hard to stay invested in a piece of work in which everything is hunky dory for the participants. But at the same time, especially in music, when you admire an artist, you want them to feel personally fulfilled.
What works with Art & Leisure is Martin’s wry sense of humor and skill at evoking a sense of time and place. He excels, like a lot of other great songwriters before him, at making the personal feel universal, particularly so on the opening track “Jobs I Had Before I Got Rich and Famous” wherein Martin chronicles all the lousy jobs before he found success in music. Not many people succeed in attaining their dream job, but it’s easy for anyone to relate to the many indignities of working in the service industry. It’s the little details in this song that make it relevant.
There’s a sense of fondness for what transpired, although not exactly a desire to return to that time frame. It evokes the feeling of working a dead-end job and finding joy in other aspects of life. Songs like “Calder’s Circus,” “Michelangelo” and “Watson and the Shark” perfectly encapsulate that happy-day drunk feeling of being on vacation, taking in the sights, not a care in the world.
There’s a lovely tongue-in-cheek quality to a lot of the songs, the minimal production implicitly telling you not to take the proceedings to seriously. It evokes the feeling of heading to a bar, running into an old college friend and catching up over beers about the past. There’s no yearning for past as in songs like “Glory Days,” the present is pretty good and the past wasn’t too bad either.