Over the past decade the Walkmen have earned their stripes—releasing six studio albums, touring, and simply growing up. The band released its seventh studio album, Heaven, last month; an album that shows the Walkmen embracing adulthood and subtler sounds, approaching the stereotypical grand themes of life with a little help from producer Phil Ek, and dreamy Fleet Foxes crooner Robin Pecknold.
Recorded in Seattle and the woods of Washington, Heaven takes on some of the somber, quiet quality of the Northwest. While the opener “We Can’t Be Beat” shows vocalist/guitarist Hamilton Leithauser opting for something happier than his usual self-doubt and pessimism (“I don’t need perfection/We can’t be beat”), there’s still a melancholic tone lurking behind the veneer of joyous clapping percussion and gentle acoustic guitars. While acknowledging “I was the Duke of Earl but it couldn’t last/I was the Pony Express but I ran out of gas,” Leithauser and the rest of the Walkmen seem to have moved beyond the defeatism and gloom of their former days. On “Heartbreaker,” Leithauser sings “I’m not your heartbreaker,” to which you could easily imagine him adding “anymore.” Amid triumphant, bright guitar riffs he announces, “These are the good years/These golden light years.”
If the band has matured as adults in their personal lives, so has their music. Lyrically, the Walkmen have never been better. While Lisbon (2010) and earlier records earned critical acclaim for their sound, Heaven‘s strength lies mostly in its words. From questioning the durability of love over time and age in “Love is Luck” to recounting a story about the tension between his rural roots and urban upbringing in “Southern Heart” (“family calls from Kentucky in May/Bourbon in their blood”), the album is rife with verbal artistry. “Southern Heart” is also a musical centerpiece for the album. Leithauser’s slow vocals swell over soft, barely audible guitars. It’s sparse and minimalistic- a sound clearly influenced by the Fleet Foxes and Hopelessness Blues- but this sound does them well. “Line By Line” starts off with escalating arpeggios building to a crescendo, growing and taking up a vast sonic space. On “No One Ever Sleeps,” the Walkmen go for something of a lullaby with a Motown flair, composed of simple guitars with barbershop-style vocals.
Heaven isn’t perfect. There are moments when it lags and loses interest, like the overly sentimental “Song for Leigh,” “The Love You Love,” or on the radio-ready title track. But overall, the album serves as a hallmark for a band that’s survived the music scene for a decade and still managed to develop and do something new after six albums. The Walkmen have been criticized for writing “dad rock.” If that’s the case, Heaven makes them the coolest dads around.