The Walkmen may be retired, but its lead singer definitely (and thankfully) is not.
When I left the safety of suburbia for the mean streets of New York, the Walkmen’s “We’ve Been Had” was my anthem. The song (from the band’s 2002 debut album) sounds off-kilter, which was how I felt. The piano intro — jangly and slightly out-of-tune, like a vintage upright — is diced up by percussion. The melody stumbles drunkenly up and down the scale. The lyrics are ironic, disaffected: I’m a modern guy, I don’t care much for the go-go or the retro image … We’ve been had, you say it’s over, somehow it got easy to laugh out loud. The elements feel jarring when they first collide, but somehow everything coalesces in a way that is just right, just like the cacophony of the city.
The Walkmen produced some of the best indie rock of the 2000s. In late 2013, after six albums, the D.C. born, New York-bred band went on “extreme hiatus.”
Move the clock forward to “Black Hours.”
In his solo debut, Walkmen frontman Hamilton Leithauser explores a range of influences, fusing the cool moodiness of ’50s-era Sinatra with flavors of jazz, folk rock, and indie pop. If that strikes you as discordant, just listen to Leithauser work his musical alchemy. For Walkmen fans, don’t expect a replica of the breakneck pace and howl of “The Rat.” But do expect the signature combination of grit and vulnerability that Leithauser has perfected over the years. His lithe voice can convey scorn and aggression in a raw-throated delivery, but also softens to allow the pathos to seep through the cracks in the bravado. In “Black Hours,” Leithauser slows it down, smoothing his voice into a dark, hypnotic croon that draws us in while warning us to keep our distance.
“Black Hours” starts with 5 AM, a song influenced by Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours. Conjure up a dimly-lit club that smells of smoke and scotch. There’s a pianist hunched over the keys. Backed by a languid swirl of strings, Leithauser queries: Do you wonder why I sing these love songs, when I have no love at all? Is the life you seek made of senseless schemes? This song surprised me with its un-Walkmen-ness, but it’s one of my favorites. It smolders before fading, like the embers of a cigarette as you take that last drag, standing outside the nightclub and watching the night bleed into dawn.
The album version of 5 AM features an orchestral arrangement, but the live rendition at The Hamilton (would that be 2 x Hamilton, or Hamilton-squared?), on a balmy D.C. summer night, was a stripped-down version. No strings, no piano, no horns — just Leithauser, bathed in blue light, his voice coiling around Paul Maroon’s superlative guitar-playing. Do you need someone just to cool your blood? Could you dream away all your restless blues? The audience listened, hardly breathing. Not a single murmur disturbed the pause before the coda, delivered with an iciness that sent a shiver down my spine: Promises I never fail, never fail to never make. It was a sublime moment.
“Black Hours” was produced by Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij, with collaborators including Morgan Henderson (Fleet Foxes), Amber Coffman (Dirty Projectors), and Richard Swift (The Shins). These influences are discernible in some songs, but Leithauser’s compelling voice remains front and center as he moves from “Alexandra,” with its jaunty, clap-along percussion, to “I Retired,” with its boogie groove that eases into a playful doo-wop.
From the throaty, theatrical “5 AM,” to the rollicking, brash “I Don’t Need Anyone” (official video here) to the swooning, lachrymose “Self Pity,” Leithauser transitions effortlessly between despondent and defiant, all while looking dapper in a slim-fitting black suit. But despite the melancholy of the track names, the album doesn’t drag. The songs are propelled forward by Leithauser’s strong, slightly raspy vocals and brightened by marimba, bongos, and Maroon’s energetic guitar riffs (the former Walkmen (Walkman?) plays a ’63 Fender Jazzmaster). And when you see Leithauser live, you also get a dose of humor — on Sunday night, he joked about questionable set list choices after he started the evening with “I Retired” and proceeded to play “I’ll Always Love You” right after “I’ll Never Love Again.” In “We’ve Been Had,” Leithauser declares: Sometimes I’m just happy I’m older. That sentiment seems to be as true in 2002 as it is in 2014. The musician — now also a husband and father — finds that although he’s far from retired, he can also ease off the accelerator. Meander a little. Take it all in. Listen. The summer’s coming. Slow down. Don’t chase the crowd. ‘Cause I’m right here. Purchase “Black Hours” (LPs and CDs here, or on iTunes). Then go see Leithauser live, because there’s an intensity and intimacy that can’t be replicated in a studio recording. After the Newport Folk Festival on July 25, Leithauser and crew will continue their tour through October (full list of U.S. and European tour dates here). For fellow Washingtonians, Leithauser will be back in D.C. on September 2nd (sold out) and 3rd (tickets still available!), at the Lincoln Theatre.