Maybe cover albums don’t get their due. Or maybe they need to be rethought, critically speaking. In 2006, The Walkmen recorded, song-for-song, Harry Nisson’s Pussy Cats. The resulting album, albeit haphazard in places, featured a much looser sound than what listeners had encountered on their previous three albums — one still centered around Hamilton Leithauser’s haunted croon, but more willing to be playful. The Walkmen’s discography since then is one that, relative to their previous work, is more likely to experiment, to manipulate space, to juggle instrumentation and toss aside preconceived notions. Those two albums, 2008’s You & Me and now Lisbon, have benefitted from that shift, boasting a stronger sense of dynamics and a bolder command of restraint than the rest of their discography.
Though if there’s one criticism that comes to mind initially of Lisbon, it’s that its template seems relatively similar to that of its predecessor — a refinement of existing ideas (arguably, more successfully than said 2008 album), rather than a progression from them. And what’s most initially striking about this album may well be to the richness of its sound and occasionally stately pace. The haunting, piano-led “While I Shovel the Snow” ushers in the album’s conclusion in a beautifully melancholy way. And “Stranded,” in particular, puts Leithauser’s voice at the center of a section of muted horns as it sings of a romantic analogy for the title. And that it comes followed by “Victory,” more taut but still slow-burning, helps establish what can feel like a default mood.
The group has, however, always possessed the ability to make beguiling music. Admittedly, “The Rat,” from 2004’s Bows + Arrows, was a frenetic cry of frustration that still resonates. But we shouldn’t forget that one of the group’s earliest high-profiles songs, “We’ve Been Had,” from their debut Everyone Who Pretended To Like Me Is Gone, was not exactly a rager — until You & Me’s “Red Moon,” it was probably the prettiest song they’d written. And from the contemplative mood here, the more uptempo songs — still awash with regret — provide an interesting counterpoint. “Angela Surf City” rethinks the notion of a buildup, featuring a long introduction consisting of vocals, bare-bones guitar, and minimal drumming. And “Woe is Me” (one hopes the title is at least a bit tongue-in-cheek) is pared-down garage rock, a classic verse/chorus/verse pop song, and one of the few points on Lisbon where structure trumps atmosphere.
That tendency toward the atmospheric is what sits at the heart of Lisbon. Its 11 songs are uniformly strong, but what sticks in the brain are isolated moments: the haunted choir of voices counterpointing sinewy guitar on “All My Great Designs”; the even-more-stripped-down melody of the title track; and the way Leithauser shouts, “I’m the bigger man here,” on “Stranded.” Lisbon is, for The Walkmen, a reinforcement rather than a reinvention — but for those listeners already fond of their sound, or of melancholy rock stripped down to its essentials in general, that makes for a rewarding listen.