Essential: The Walkmen – Lisbon review

by Craig Howieson

Lisbon isn’t just one of The Walkmen’s finest moments – it’s one of the finest records of the past decade. A conciliatory revelry in the multiple shades of human emotions, it is an album within which we win, and lose, together.

A slew of great bands emerged from the NYC scene in the early aughts, each with their own distinctive marker. The Strokes had the hype, Interpol had the cool factor, and Yeah Yeah Yeahs had the wild abandonment of youth. But it was The Walkmen, with their fondness of vintage sounds and equipment – and in Hamilton Leithauser a singer capable of summoning extraordinary passion – who had the heart. Within their everyman charm, listeners found old friends with whom to reminisce and confide. Or at the very least, an audible heartbreak that they could scream along to.

A love letter to the city it is named after, The Walkmen’s fourth record, Lisbon, holds a tumultuous uncertainty. It is awash with sun-baked tales of heartache, regret and longing, with the occasional victory thrown in for good measure. But what makes Lisbon so special is its ability to wrap itself around you; to present to you the past, future and present in a nostalgic haze. Like the unique light that accompanies a holiday sunset, a hazy yellow mist hangs over the album. Caught between beginnings and endings, it swings from sorrow to hope. It is often difficult to tell if figures viewed through this fog are approaching or retreating, whether you are welcoming someone into your life or letting them go, for good. The band present a warming take on misery, ageing and longing, but most importantly of all, they celebrate all these emotions in equal measure – grateful to have felt anything at all.

Lisbon may have been conceived on a beach looking out to the North Atlantic, but it is equally informed by America’s deep south. A spaghetti western vibe hangs in the air as Paul Maroon’s pinging guitar lines conjure images of a Mexican standoff. Sounding like it was recorded on microphones older than all of the band members combined, and a price tag to make eyes water, Lisbon has a timeless quality without ever sounding dated.

The tone is set immediately on Juveniles, as Leithauser attempts to hide his anguish over the fact his love will be ‘with someone else tomorrow night’. Treble-heavy guitars twinkle over the irregular heartbeat of Walter Martin’s bass, as Leithauser croons through rheumy eyes ‘I see better things to come’.

On Angela Surf City, as Matt Barrick pummels the drums, Leithauser’s voice is ablaze. Pulling you in, forehead to forehead, you feel reassured that you too can face this life head-on. Each line is delivered with the passion of a war cry fit to accompany troops out of trenches. Barrick, a gifted and nuanced drummer who can beat the hell out of the kit when required, is the band’s ace in the hole. He gives a lesson in stamina on the country shuffle of Blue as Your Blood; the relentless clip clap of his kit never-ceasing other than to provide cymbal splashes for the track’s devastatingly euphoric chorus.

The Walkmen always give the impression of having pulled themselves from the gutter, beaten, but unbroken, to dust themselves down and persevere with blood and grit. As tight as they are musically, they convey a raw recklessness. Through jolts and snaps, they bluster through attempts at stoicism and calm as they are crumbling on the inside.

On While I Shovel the Snow, Leithauser describes being a bystander – ‘Half of my life / I’ve been watching / Half of my life / I’ve been waking up.’ It serves as a warning. We can sleepwalk through life, or we can go out and find it, prepared for the heartache that could bring. After all, what is preferable? To live half a life free of pain, or to embrace every aspect of it.

The narrative of Lisbon may hinge on romantic relationships but the lessons are universal. In sharing failures, you highlight the joy found in trying. Lisbon is a space in which failures and shortcomings sound triumphant. It does not celebrate the glory of winning, but the heroism found in fighting.

The Walkmen do not shy away from the fact that life is tough. You’ll get your heartbroken. Sometimes it’ll be your fault, other times it won’t, but we live and learn and brush ourselves down to try again. It’s best not to overthink it.

‘Every chance you have

All the love and life

All the joy and grace

Don’t be absurd, don’t you think it out

You know what thinking does

To love’s shine, and love’s light’ (Lisbon)

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