Heaven is an excellent sounding record on the whole and perhaps The Walkmen’s most accomplished yet but as the band’s seventh studio album, it represents a crossroads – one the band seems to be dithering at. They have hit on a consistently good level of production and Heaven sounds almost hyper-real in quality, especially in headphones. Hamilton Leithauser sounds like he could be standing next to you at certain points while the band plays tight and proficiently elsewhere in the room. While the production values allow you to imagine the band recording live around you, examples of an unbalanced mix impact negatively on songs such as “We Can’t Be Beat” and “Love is Luck” where Leithauser’s voice drowns out the music, leaving you searching for the melody underneath.
When you do find the melody in this and other songs, it often disappoints, not through lack of quality but from the fact that it appears to be the same in most songs (a reason for hiding it perhaps?). Too many tracks sound the same and there is a feeling at times that the band is afraid of deviating from the signature sound they’ve developed for Heaven and are safely wrapped up in a comfort zone of surf pop guitars and vague lyrical narratives.
There is a sense of the non-committal about parts of the album where it feels the band happy sticking to the formula. When they do stray from the blueprint, on tracks such as “The Witch,” “Jerry Jr.’s Tune” and the excellent “No One Ever Sleeps” (which is the sound of being the last drunk in an empty bar), it jolts like a triple espresso or the first cigarette of the day. These are heady highs but all too fleeting. At least they show that The Walkmen can shake things up when they take risks. Let’s just hope they throw more caution to the wind next time.
After waiting for the album to eventually take flight, it does so perversely not with a rollicking rocker but with a sinister ballad of swaggering darkness. “The Witch” is a weird but effective reminder that The Walkmen are so much more than jangly pseudo-folkies. This is reinforced by the instrumental swampy blues of “Jerry Jr’s Tune” which, if it ever had lyrics, would certainly follow the gospel humming’s lead to some river where the townsfolk go down to pray. The stand-out track is “The Love You Love,” a barn-storming number which Leithauser carries manfully with a drastically different and brave vocal delivery which is missing from the rest of the album. It’s the sound of courage; one which would make Heaven‘s follow-up a luminous record should it continue. “No One Ever Sleeps,” a discordant barfly hymn, is also a saving grace and an example of originality that bodes well for the future.
If The Walkmen are standing at a crossroads with Heaven then one hopes that they continue going forward but on a parallel path to the one that led them to this album. They need to take the road less traveled. While there is nothing intrinsically wrong with Heaven, for The Walkmen to avoid becoming predictable, they need to take more risks, embrace diversity and shake things up. They are obviously a very talented outfit but to progress, they need to channel that talent into something new rather than making excellent examples of music we’ve already heard before.
First published on: Puluche.com