In its first week of release, Lisbon, the sixth studio album from indie favorites The Walkmen, reached #27 on the Billboard Top 200. I can only imagine the vindication felt by a band long hailed as one of independent music’s finest—at last, it would seem that the Walkmen’s popularity is beginning to match their acclaim. This feat is even more impressive upon listening to the album. It’s hardly what one would call “commercial,” but rather a contemplative, restrained piece of art. Frankly, the fact that 13,000 copies sold in one week gives me hope for the future of popular music.
Lisbon is a fascinating record, both melancholy and joyful, defeated and hopeful. The first time I heard it I described it as the drunken love child of Vampire Weekend and My Morning Jacket; now that I’ve had a little time with it, I’m not so sure. There’s certainly a lot of clean, sparse guitar work and full-throated crooning, but the feel here is more classic. It makes me wonder what the legendary Sun Studio recordings sounded like to listeners in 1957. In 2010, the Walkmen’s fetish for—and masterful use of—vintage sound gives Lisbon a timeless quality, entirely modern but undeniably old. I see Charles Bukowski’s Henry Chinaski slumped over a bottle, mumbling the lyrics to a song from his younger days—“Unchained Melody,” perhaps.
There’s no bombast on Lisbon. Each track is controlled and deliberate, moving along at a deceptively lazy pace. “Juveniles” opens the record with an infectious bass groove and chiming, clean guitars that seem to just hang on the beat. The lyrics describe the romantic life of a young man: “You’re someone else / tomorrow night. / Doesn’t matter to me.” Still, the speaker is either looking forward or remembering the distant past: “I am a good man / by any count / and I see better things to come.”
In comparison, “Angela Surf City” is a straight-up rocker. Faster-paced, it comes in with sparse guitars and a surf beat before breaking into a powerful chorus. Again, we get the sense that the lyrics are written from the future: “Now I dream of the time / I was holding onto you / for lack of anything to do.”
The faster pace is kept up through the Johnny Cash-esque “Blue as Your Blood,” but begins to taper off as the record continues. “Stranded” is all horns and sparse drums—honestly, it sounds like lilting, drunken Christmas music, played for a single figure on a barren, dark beach. “Victory” feels to me like Lisbon’s centerpiece, with Hamilton Leithauser’s gruff voice soaring over a pounding, persistent beat. It’s not triumphant, though—Leithauser sings, “Victory should have been mine!” Things are beginning to turn more existential, leaving behind the specifics of lost love and turning attention to an early life already lived, with goals not quite met.
This is the real meat of the record, where the truly adult voice begins to come through. There’s a thematic similarity to Thomas Wolfe’s novel You Can’t Go Home Again, a longing to return coupled with a realization of the passage of time. The second half of the album comes together for me on “While I Shovel the Snow.” One of the album’s softest tracks, the bass plunks along like falling snow while the guitars sound like a music box. Leithauser sings, “Half my life I’ve been watching; / half my life I’ve been waking up…So I look in back of me, / see a shape beside the walkway.” Who is the shape but the young man from “Juveniles?” And how could his waking up be a bad thing?
And yet, early sales aside, I can’t see Lisbon launching the Walkmen to true mainstream stardom. The record is quiet and patient, and so must be the listener. It’s a grower, and there’s no one track that will light up the iTunes store. But perhaps that’s just as well—Walkmen will continue to be a music fan’s band, rewarding those listeners with the attention span to afford it. Old loves and great designs aside, Leithauser and company have nothing to regret.