Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Sound engineering by Patrick Stolley
There was a story in the New York Times today, a front page piece that became elongated after the jump with a couple more photographs to do the trick, about a woman who had just turned 101 years old. She's been blind for nearly four years and prior to that was a voracious reader and a playwright. She had once had dinner with Duke Ellington and can still remember intricate details and plotlines from books that she read 60 years ago, said the story. This kind, old woman has no surviving family members and all of her friends have passed away. She's out-lived everyone she's ever had a chance to outlive, but the nut of the story was that she's attracted all of these different people from her Murray Hill neighborhood to visiting her at different times throughout the week to read her books to her.
They come to her like clockwork, bringing gifts of dark chocolate and fictitious escapes to the rent-controlled walk-up that she still pays $69 a month for. It's a fascinating story, but it could be better. The old lady wouldn't consider this making the story better, but what if she'd been blind for the last 40 years instead of just the last four. All along, she'd have been able to experience things candidly and closely through her hearing and through her mouth (wonder what those dark chocolates LOOK like in her head, just based on the flavors she takes in from the candies - it must be extravagent), but all of the sight references would have been stunted in the year that Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated.
The colors that reigned supreme and the styles of the late 60s would remain ingrained in the head of this woman, but the stories that have been read aloud to her have continued to come. Be they old or new, she could apply what she knew then to these stories of now, giving them the kinds of colors and aesthetics of yore - a modern yore, but yore nonetheless. She wouldn't know that there was a difference. She couldn't perceive there to be any kind of arrested understanding or a difference in the natural realm of statement.
The Walkmen, New York's greatest wrinkle-shirted, often-imitated and always ramshackle-y precise rock and roll band, is this older woman with 40 years of blindness, but complete, crystal-clear understanding and perception of the ways of the land in these current times. Hamilton Leithauser could kick it with Twain, Merle Haggard, Buffalo Bill Cody, Roy Orbison, Woody Guthrie, Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde, not to mention others. He's debonair and dapper in his assessments of his problems and situations - those taking the long way toward reconciliation and those taking the wrong way toward it. The ways that he writes about girls and empty streets, dim prospects and long gone times of significant import are grand and magnificent - just as integral and magnificent as the tried and true-slash-ambitious-as-hell musical accompaniment that his longtime buddies - Walt Martin, Paul Maroon, Pete Bauer and Matt Barrick - painstakingly craft to meet the songs' needs.
They've taken their time in making this newest record - You & Me - and it's easily one of the year's best efforts. It's long and it's inviting and on it we hear Leithauser expanding on the tattered and historic recollections of time passed - passed in a way that gives it a classic Jimmy Stewart, Bogart air to it, as if it were blessed with a near timeless quality of charm and thoughtfulness. All of the unfortunate progress that has changed the way we live and interact with people is absent from these gorgeous, big country folk songs. They borrow from the olden way of thought - where girls can be pretty as cherries and called peaches non-sarcastically. These are those times - or at least they're represented here - where pride is one of the most admirable traits in a man and it was important to be a gentleman, to appreciate life for its hardships and it's sunrises full of crisp, golden air that feels like heaven to breathe.
Leithauser picks these comforting thoughts apart - or has over his lifetime - and reconstructs them into nuggets of lovely lyric. He chomps down onto the American Dream, the vast possibility, the hopes of living life to the fullest in that endless pursuit of happiness and writes songs that are appropriate to our times as they would have been appropriate 40, 50, 60 years ago and more. As he sings on the opening track of the new record, "There's still salt in my tea." He's summed himself and The Walkmen up into a tiny package - where the pipe dreams are still dreams and where hearts can be in the strangest places and still be familiar.