The Walkmen have proven to be their generation’s consummate rock ‘n roll survivors. Of the early 2000’s NYC “rock” revival that spawned a thousand Strokes knockoffs, The Walkmen are, if not the last men standing, certainly the only ones still relevant in the rapidly-shifting sands of popular style-running. Why a certain few bands have staying power while countless others slip into forgotten trend trenches is a complex algorithm with numerous X factors. To their credit, The Walkmen, while never straying too far from their original blueprint, have remained admirably consistent over the course of their decade-plus career. Another, more evasive quantity, is the band’s naturally evolving career arc. They didn’t blow up out of the starting gate like some of their peers, and they’ve never had the Eureka-moment or breakthrough hit that can suddenly propel bands into the next tier overnight. Instead, they’ve been granted the all-too-rare luxury of slowly expanding their fan base and their sound in tandem.
Heaven then, seems like just the kind of record this band would/should be making at this point in their trajectory. It manages to be a kind of “full-circle” album and a cautiously exploratory one at the same time. After having seemingly settled into a comfortable mid-tempo waltz-mode with their last couple records, Heaven contains some of the best, straight-ahead rockers this group written in some time. “Heartbreaker,” “The Love You Love” and the title track all bear down hard with the kind of hooks and immediacy that made Bows & Arrows a high watermark of their sound and scene. Having established that they can still bring the youthful fire when they want to, they attempt to stretch their legs into more refined nightwear, putting the suit-coats back on for a couple stabs into spare acoustic pageantry — with varying degrees of success. One can hardly slight them for continuing to stretch the canvas of their sound, and the attempts to do so here are good, and certainly pretty. But in the context of the more effective fast and midtempo cuts here, they seem to sit a little awkwardly as parts of an album.
The word “maturity” has been unsparingly bandied about in relation to this album, and the slow, stripped-down songs here seem to be striving for the stoic elegance that bands like Fleet Foxes and The National have taken to the bank. Some of this “mature” sound can certainly be credited to producer Phil Ek, who has made a reputation on his ability to get high-gloss sounds out of little bands. Again, a guy can’t knock a band for wanting to strip away the window dressings and take a more straightforward approach. Ek excels at this task — he could find a way to get a crisp, polished performance out of The Mummies. One can hear his influence in the more restrained performances here, and in most instances it seems to be a judicious move. Hamilton Leithauser’s go-for-broke howl is a powerful instrument, though one that can become grating with prolonged exposure. Refreshingly, rather than trying to shout you awake, he’s actually singing for most of Heaven. It’s a move that suits the streamlined presentation here well, as the overall sound has been emptied out and polished-up in what appears to be an attempt at directness, making the machine move as clean and efficiently as possible. And for the most part, it works.
The only problem with buffing out flaws is inevitably losing some of the unique quality that made the thing special in the first place. In this case, we lose much of the loose-limbed flourish of Paul Maroon and Matt Barrick’s guitar and drums — two personality traits that were building blocks of The Walkmen’s sound. It’s not enough to keep the album from being a great Walkmen record, and a good record in its own right, but it can be frustrating hearing such singular players holding back. Then again, learning how to say more with less is one of the great challenges of any creative endeavor. Even if it’s this relatively subtle, it’s good to hear a group continue to challenge themselves without kicking their strengths to the curb. Makes you wonder what these guys will sound like when they’re really dignified and old.