Album: The Walkmen, "Heaven" (Fat Possum)
"Heaven" is mature, engaging, expansive and thoughtful, and stands easily and comfortably alongside anything else The Walkmen have ever done. Collectively, these are generally the sorts of traits that you hope for in a band's seventh studio album but almost never get, if you indeed get anything at all; R.E.M. gave us "Out of Time" and U2 delivered "Zooropa" in the same slot, both of which stood as evidence that perhaps the clock was winding down and no longer up.
It shouldn't be a surprise that they're capable of great things: this is a band that was good from the beginning, then somehow got better -- not auspiciously better, just all over better. They had a certain sheen and maybe even slightly over-groomed aspect that made them fodder for car companies -- you probably remember the song that played in the Saturn commercial, even if you don't remember the car -- and easy targets for critics still smarting from the band's over-hyped earlier incarnation, Jonathan Fire*Eater. Robert Christgau didn't even bother to waste valuable keystroke labor on 2004's "Bows + Arrows," the only word you'll find there is the universal symbol for "this sucks"; one assumes he pushes a big red button on his desk with "NO" written on it when he's feeling particularly undelighted. (Speaking of which, if you ever feel like being amused and offended at the same time, check out Christgau when he's getting pissy over an ill-conceived critical stance -- he's like a drunken bar-fighter who knows he's been whupped but has made such a big deal about how he can take anybody in the room he can't back down now. Instead of shutting up, his mouth gets even bigger -- hilarity and multiples of stitches will certainly ensue in roughly equal measure.)
But in every sense that matters, they're not only as good as they ever were, they're arguably better than that. And that's mildly surprising.
"Heaven" begins as a sort of unassuming typical Walkmen effort, whatever that is, with "We Can't Be Beat" asserting the title line and the fact that "the world is ours" following only a mild tussle with Hamilton Leithauser's self-doubt ("Give me a life that needs correction/Nobody needs perfection.") There is, in fact, nothing essentially groundbreaking going on over the album's first half, but that may or may not be what you're looking for in a Walkmen album, especially seven notches down the belt.
But by "Line By Line" the cuts grow gradually deeper, the colors a bit darker as the storm clouds seem to roil on the horizon. "The wicked all will die," Letihauser glooms, but it turns out he's just quoting a book. How does he know it? "I just know it, I just know it." Producer Phil Ek picks up the pace on "Song For Leigh," which seems to snap the singer out of his funk; he's "walking around the world," singing about his girl, to whom "I sing myself sick, I sing myself sick about you." There's a snappy, elastic quality to the band here -- it's one of the most fully realized pop moments on the album.
"Nightengales" borrows a bass line straight out of the Kim Deal fakebook, but the song itself is never not a Walkmen tune, full of brightly intoned gibberish ("Wind and grind, it's only wind and grind it's how the days go by it's only wind and grind," then something about slapping arms and breaking falls) presented so chromatically it might as well be in Hopelandic; it's all about following the rhythm and feeling ever so slightly like everything might be okay. So it goes, down to the delightful title track and the crackling "The Love You Love," which is about as close as these guys are ever going to get to writing a TV on the Radio song. "Don't judge the preface, just the fiction," Leithauser sings, becoming the first person in rock-and-roll history to use the word "preface" in a song lyric.
"One Ever Sleeps" is about the only dud here; it's simply too predictable. You want the funny phrasing and the oddly cadenced marching/chanting that the Walkmen do best, mostly because nobody else is doing it, and instead you get something that sounds like it was left off a David Lynch soundtrack for being too obvious of a reference to 1962. "Dreamboat," which finishes the album, grants all your wishes, however, and even throws in a slow, martial drum beat for good measure, along with that trilling, rising guitar thing that Paul Maroon owns so completely. It's a summit, along a trail peppered with peaks of similar lengths; nevertheless it's a vista. There's a long trail back to camp, but no indication that the Walkmen are ready to turn around and head for home anytime soon.