To their credit, the Walkmen have avoided making a career of copying the glory of “The Rat.” In the wake of their acclaimed sophomore album Bows + Arrows, the New York quintet added mariachi horns, upped the sleigh bells and covered Harry Nilsson in an effort to find a new direction. On You & Me, they’re trying something new by trying nothing new at all. Though it pales in comparison to its closest likeness – 2002 debut Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me is Gone – You & Me looks through the same jaded glasses after rolling a little further down the line. The unrealized hopes from six years ago are back with a few gray hairs.
With the exception of Everyone Who Pretended…, each of The Walkmen’s albums has peaked with a rich center between the fourth and eighth tracks. In that sense at least, this is no different from recent material: You & Me’s beating heart is marked by the rollicking standout “In the New Year” on the front end, which showcases drummer Matt Barrick at his best. On the far end are the back-to-back highlights of “Red Moon” and “Canadian Girl,” which reprise the woozy brass of “Louisiana” from A Hundred Miles Off in a more understated, regal fashion.
Unfortunately, these are the highlights in their most inconsistent album yet. There’s no question that when they get it right, the Walkmen are captivating. But with songs like “Long Time Ahead of Us” and “New Country,” the only thing keeping your attention is Hamilton Leithauser’s slurred laments. Say what you will about Barrick being the star of the show, but the band is nothing without Leithauser, who still has one of the most distinguishable voices in indie-rock. He is even more noticeable by his absence, which occurs on the gratuitous instrumental “Flamingos (for Colbert).”
“When my heart’s in the strangest place, that’s how it started,” wails Leithauser on “In the New Year.” Indeed, the band’s heart was in a strange, new place for You & Me. With their beloved Marcata Studios leveled in early 2006, You & Me might have marked a fresh start with a new recording space and a new label. If this album were four songs shorter, it would probably be as good as Bows + Arrows and somewhere near the equally great heights of Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me is Gone. What we have instead is a group that sounds exhausted from fighting the same old woes. The Walkmen have at last stumbled into redundancy trying to find a new direction. You & Me isn’t an outright acknowledgment of defeat, but it’s a step closer.