Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Sound Engineering by Patrick Stolley
Three weeks ago, in San Francisco, The Walkmen flew into town at the end of all roads, a city where you have to either turn around or get wet continuing straight, for an appearance at the Noise Pop festival, headlining a sold out show at The Independent. The New Yorkers spent the entire afternoon hunting down rental equipment for the gig and performing a new song in a doughnut shoppe for our good buddies from La Blogotheque in between.
Some decompression time must have come between the harried errands and the performance at the end of the night, but Hamilton Leithauser the same pent up pistol of snakes, philosophers and head-on collisions. He was whipped and yet broad-shouldered and proud, the rest of the Men setting the agitation just right for his robust steeliness and genuine uniqueness that is an equal balance between wayfarer/man adrift, prism, crystal ball, sage, dusty poet and pall bearer. He stalks around the stage, carefully wrapping the microphone cord around his hand, craning his neck to the rafters to open up, whisks his tongue back and forth to ferry the words from their tree limbs and the sends them out like earnest high beams being flicked on in the middle of complete blackness. He sounds as if he's hurting himself badly, but it's perfection in tone and substance, suitable for the time and the place and the subject matter that he and the long-living band have prided themselves in enhancing and becoming experts in since they released Everyone Who Pretended To Like Me Is Gone in 2002 and before that, when three of the members were in the much talked about, but short-lived Jonathan Fire*Eater. Reedy and tall, Leithauser stands before audiences in loafers and a salty old sea captain's suit coat looking like George Washington crossing the Delaware, with one of those shoes propped on the stern of a small vessel cutting through frigid, choppy waters to surprise the English and Hessian troops in Trenton. He throws his jawbone out front as if it were fashioned out of impenetrable iron, holding onto the microphone with hands ringed by golden baubles that have the design of graduating class rings, but are likely heirlooms from some ancient familial heroics, as those are the kinds of things that one gets the impression that the young man cherishes in life and holds dear. He peers like a man of purpose, with an old soul and a need to tell you about his day. There's a total lacking in artifice and consignment in the way that
The Walkmen walk and shuffle and juke, their music a corpus of deft reflections of man through the centuries - the dotted line that has met us here from somewhere far off in the distance, only to connect with a new, side-winding or nascent other dotted line on the other side of here. They follow, in both tune and lyric, the never-ending travels of man - no one in particular and no one of any significant importance - just man as he stumbles about out the doors every waking day and finds mischief, confusion, romance, fogginess, temptation and potential enlightenment brewing like a stew before his nose. They seem to subscribe to the idea that you learn something new every day while there are holdovers in the procession of inference and critical processing, of actually digesting those valuable lessons that come with difficulty. History's spelled man as an infuriating beast to define, one with more tangents than fingers and more bullheadedness than a billion rodeos. He gets himself into messes left and right and the ways that he's found to get himself out of them with speed often amount to more messes, a deepening of holes, a thickening of the rings beneath the eyes. Leithauser tackles these endless quandaries relentlessly in his band's own songs, which frequently use New York and its finely spun, rife directory of picturesque messes, gentlemen and you-name-its as studies, and yet he brings an older master's intriguing analysis of man and his curses into the frame as they give us Leonard Cohen in a set of ambling covers. The men that Cohen examines are alike the ones that The Walkmen follow, just of different eras. Leithauser still sings in that citric, acidic and maple syrupy way, but with more softness as if he's just found a box in the attic full of old hats, photo albums, books that reek like lost libraries and musky images of those unknown people who passed long ago and yet probably lived lives not all that different in their musings and wonderment. Cohen wrote, "Even damnation is poison with rainbows/All the brave young men, they're waiting now to see a signal/Which some killer will be lighting for pay/Into this furnace I ask you to venture/You I cannot betray," and damnation has always sounded - in this sense - a lot like the everyday, the world that The Walkmen see before them as the honest to goodness.