Yelping Like a Grown-up

Photo: Andrew Droz Palermo

The Walkmen have just made a gem of a rock album, but should anyone care about such a thing? You & Me is an album in the long-format sense of the word. It plays for about an hour, fourteen songs meant to be listened to one after another with undivided attention. It rewards that attention with small pleasures: guitar and organ playing off each other’s reverb, bass and drum dancing in and out of step, horns and vocals collapsing into a single bellow. In essence, it offers that luxuriant buzz that made rock and roll one of the great narcotics of the last half-century. Here is what You & Me does not offer: anthemic choruses, soaring ballads, ferocious hooks, or any hint of a potential hit. It does not offer the chance to say “I knew them when”; the band is already eight years old. And it does not offer the opportunity to indulge in rock-and-roll nostalgia; the band is only eight years old. So what exactly are the Walkmen doing?

It was back in 2000 that five prep-school chums from Washington, D.C., who had come to New York to go to college, formed the Walkmen. Two years later, they released their debut, Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone. That album’s clanging guitar riffs, tottering drums, and slightly out-of-tune piano, along with singer Hamilton Leithauser’s straining, drunken holler, made them sudden favorites among the scrupulously hip. In those days, indie-heads who had already dismissed Coldplay and even the Strokes would press the Walkmen on friends as the new marker of where rock was.

The band’s considerable appeal lay partly in knowing that they had built their own studio, called Marcata, out of the shell of an old car-servicing plant in West Harlem and equipped it with analog recording gear and vintage instruments. Along with a backstory drawn straight from lo-fi fantasies, the Walkmen, then still in their early twenties, manifested an attitude of already-seen-it-all irony that made them practically irresistible to the young fogeys who stroll Bedford Avenue. Everyone’s cover featured a black-and-white photo of three Irish-looking lads, about 12 years old, in snap-brim caps and wool coats, puffing on cigarettes. On “We’ve Been Had,” Leithauser sang with typically rueful sarcasm, “See me age 19 with some dumb haircut from 1960 / Moving to New York City / Live with my friends there / We’re all taking the same steps / They’re foolish now.” Saturn would later use the song as the soundtrack to a car ad showing a group of twentysomethings driving past front yards full of children in swing sets and onto an open road marked with the sign NOW LEAVING CHILDHOOD. This was a band that actually signified growing up in a self-conscious kind of way.

On their 2004 follow-up, Bows + Arrows, the Walkmen pushed their sound into a near frenzy. They laid off piano in favor of stabbing organ and sped up the reverberating guitars. Leithauser’s lyrics went from sarcastic to plain aggressive. “You’ve got a nerve to be asking a favor,” he shouts repeatedly on the album’s best-known song, “The Rat.” Critics loved it, and a couple of the songs made it into the background of The O.C., but the band soon found that, having pushed the accelerator to the floor, they were now spinning their wheels. “It was affront music,” says Leithauser. “Our attitude was, we’re going to play rock and roll, and it’s going to be loud. The words were negative because it was funny to do, but you get to a point where you’re just sick of it.” He’s sitting in the backyard of a dingy apartment near the Gowanus Canal, where the band is set to play a four-song set for the online rock magazine Pitchfork’s video Website. He and the others, all now in their thirties, are dressed in button-down shirts with the sleeves rolled up and Levi’s cords. They chat quietly about quitting smoking and the mosquitoes in their yards.

After the set, organist Peter Bauer and bassist Walter Martin join Leithauser outside, where Bauer elaborates on the band’s sense of tedium after Bows + Arrows. “People seemed to notice the fast songs,” he says. “We’d always sweat those, but struggling to write fast songs is a stupid way to go about things.” So on their 2006 release, A Hundred Miles Off, they tried a brighter sound with fewer atmospherics and a more traditional song structure. The arrangements showed promise, but the album lacked the grinding synergy of the Walkmen’s previous work. Their audience, meanwhile, had moved on to Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and whoever came next. Just about everyone who had liked them seemed to have disappeared.

The Walkmen took two years to write and record You & Me, shuttling on Chinatown buses between New York and Philadelphia, where guitarist Paul Maroon and drummer Matthew Barrick had moved to escape high rents. (“It’s a pain in the ass,” says Martin, “though at one point we were paying $800 a month for a practice space here”—they had to give up Marcata when Columbia University bought the lot, in 2006—“and they were paying $75 there.”) The songs, recorded live in the room, vocals and all, roll along at in-between paces, from the inebriated double-time march on “Four Provinces” to the accelerated dirge “I Lost You.” “We realized we can put our stamp on a song that isn’t fast tempo,” says Bauer.

The weariness and disappointment that one could always sense in Leithauser’s voice now sound somehow earned, and the lyrics are noticeably warmer and more vulnerable. On “Seven Years of Holidays,” which was almost the title track, he tells a brief history of the band: “Seven years of holidays, cafés, bars, and sunny days/We ran around and banged our heads/Never felt no pain/I hope we’ll find our peace someday/Until then, these wild nights are no fun/My old friend.”

So the band that always played at being grown-up finally has done it. You & Me probably won’t help make you hip, but it might make you happy for an hour or two.

You & Me
The Walkmen.
Gigantic Music. $12.98.

Yelping Like a Grown-up