By the time your second semester of freshmen year at college rolls around, you known both your limitations – that sixth can of Natty Light in the last 90 minutes was one too many – and how far you can push the envelope – waiting till the night before a ten-page paper is due to start writing: yes; waiting to study for a mid-term till the night before said exam: not so much.
Routines also become easier to fall into. Once a week during the spring semester of my freshmen year at Seton Hall, one of my roommates and I had the same hour-and-a-half block of time in the afternoon free. Invariably, we would play Grand Theft Auto and listen to whatever new CD I’d purchased in Hoboken. One of those felonious afternoons, we listened to Electric Version by The New Pornographers. For some reason, while unleashing utter destruction in GTA, we unknowingly sketched out a very intricate mumblecore movie about the folks living in our dorm suite, using each song in the album as a plot point. This cinematic crafting hadn’t happened before and never happened again, but it gave me an appreciation for songs that sound like they should be in a movie.
From the opening chords of “Heartbreaker,” one of the songs off The Walkmen’s forthcoming album Heaven, to the lyrics and the pacing of the drums, this song sounds like it should play during the opening credits of a good movie.
I’ve been listening to The Walkmen since 2004. Every one of their albums that consists of original material has explored similar sonic terrain while highlighting the variety of sounds that exist in that space. “Heartbreaker” signals a change to that method. Compared to songs off of Bows + Arrows and You and Me, “Heartbreaker” is downright upbeat. Lyrics like, “I’m not your heartbreaker/ Some tender ballad player,” have a vitality and energy to them. Hamilton Leithauser’s vocals have always been powerful and emotional, but in an angry, somber or resigned way. When Leithauser sings “These are the good years/ Ahh the best, we’ll never know,” it’s call to embrace the present, enjoy what we’ve got in front of us and who we’ve got around us. Much the same way, the heartbreaker/ballad player lyrics are both a promise of what he won’t do and also a quick acknowledgment of what he won’t be.
The unique thing for me about this song is that the order in which I heard it is totally backwards. Typically, I listen to the album (and song) ad nauseam leading up to a show, hearing the way the band’s studio intentions before seeing how the tune lives in an open space, performed by folks who’ve really only got one take to get it right. I heard “Heartbreaker” for the first time sitting in the front row of the balcony at BAM. This and other songs off of the upcoming album were totally new to me. I had no preconceived notions of what the lyrics meant or how the vocals would interplay with the instruments in a live setting. Maybe, most important, these songs had yet to make or leave their mark on me emotionally. Sitting in the breathtaking Gilman Opera House at BAM for The Crossing Brooklyn Ferry Festival, I was a blank canvas when these songs played.
Even when it was just Hamilton on stage with an acoustic guitar singing “Southern Heart,” a song about a guy who has bourbon in his blood and other Southern characteristics, there was an unexpected peacefulness in the band’s sound. I recently read an interview in Pitchfork where Leithauser discussed the new album. It came up that ten years in, all the guys in The Walkmen are now married and have kids. Is there any possibility that these new sentiments appearing on Heaven come from those changes in the band members’ lives? The utter despondency of “Thinking of a Dream I Had” – lyrically and sonically – has been replaced by a mindset that isn’t teetering on morbid depression and has a far healthier grasp of the world.
One last thing about this song is the still image The Walkmen put on the YouTube video. The photo is of Pete Bower, the band’s bassist, and his wife and two children. As someone who lives in Park Slope, I see elementary school students wearing geek chic on weekends and toddlers who probably think my green chucks are so high school. Maybe so, but the kid in the picture, all suited up, looks like he is on his way to the best 1920s-themed pre-teen birthday party ever.