On both record and onstage, the Walkmen have always reached for the rafters-- often at the risk falling on their collective faces or completely overshadowing their moodier material. In the light of their previous powerful singles and go-for-broke performances, the New York band's latest album, You & Me, might seem like a step down. However, it's the first that fully commits to their seductive, eminently soused-sounding late night sulk. If there are people who still consider the Walkmen a singles act-- granted, that will happen when you write a couple of the best rock singles of the decade-- You & Me might finally convince them otherwise.
The album begins with a whimper-- the tentative patter of "Donde Esta la Playa" followed by instrumental "Flamingos (for Colbert)"-- but there's one striking, early difference between this record and all their previous work: You can make out what singer Hamilton Leithauser is saying. It's a good thing, too; among hazy tales of reckless vacations, the album's most vivid tracks are often its most lyrically straightforward: "Red Moon" is about missing a girl, "The Blue Route" is about missing better days.
Those are simple, well-worn topics, but nearly all of these songs are buoyed by some small, cautious detail that-- while it might sound slight on paper-- make for indelible musical moments: The woodsy whistling on "On the Water", the horns that make "Red Moon" gorgeously mopey, or the warm hum of organ and harp-like piano fills on "Long Time Ahead of Us". Elsewhere, the fantastic, clattering percussion on "Postcards From Tiny Islands", "Four Provinces", and more reaffirm drummer Matt Barrick is the band's MVP.
Moreover, these songs refine old ideas scattered throughout the Walkmen's catalog, mostly building them into stronger tracks than their predecessors: "Red Moon" takes the ostentatious horns from "Louisiana" (from 2006's A Hundred Miles Off) and use them as essential pieces of atmosphere and mood. The loping guitar and offbeat drumming of "Look Out the Window," from their 2002 split EP with Calla, are folded into the late-game clincher "The Blue Route". Here, all the band's wanderings coalesce with more focused lyrics and assured songwriting, neither racing nor shuffling towards its ambiguous climax. With all the elements of a Perfect Walkmen Song-- cavernous echo, stinging guitars and straining organ, vocals where you can hear the veins on Leithauser's temples bulge-- it would easily fit on the band's peak, Bows + Arrows.
You & Me isn't as hard or immediate as the band's earlier records, but that's not a complaint; its sound is coy, and invites you to spend time with it. Its lyrics are direct and its pleasures are simple-- as easy to notice as the mournful horns on "Red Moon", or hearing Leithauser hoping to get home to his loved one on the same song. While the Walkmen likely have more hits in them, if they keep making records as consistently engaging this, they won't sink for a lack of them. This is the sound they've reached for since the very beginning, and they've never played it as gracefully or confidently as they do here.