May 29, 2018
Somebody’s Waiting For Me At Home: Saying Goodbye To The Walkmen
Let’s start at the end, with the recent news that the great rock band the Walkmen would take an “extreme hiatus” (read: breakup.) Bassist/organist Peter Bauer made the announcement in typical low-key Walkmen fashion, in an interview with The Washington Post on Black Friday. A week later this long, depressing piece appeared in Stereogum chronicling the band’s slow fade. Reading it, I realized what has always bothered me about the last Walkmen album, 2012’s Heaven. Oh, it is by no means a bad record. It is technically proficient, as tight as any album the band ever produced, though the ramshackle sound that always made the Walkmen such a wonderful listen still poked through.
No, what bothered me in retrospect is how uninterested the band sounds on Heaven, how disconnected, as if the guys had recorded the whole thing by emailing each other individual instrument tracks to be assembled on a Mac Pro by some bored engineer in between rounds of Quake. It was a far cry from the seething and youthful angst of the group’s early work. And why not? All the guys have settled down, had kids, moved on from whatever existential fear of loneliness had fueled the earlier work. You could hear the beginnings of this process in 2010’s Lisbon,an album beloved by critics that I found insanely boring. In hindsight, it was not the sound of a band moving in an exciting new direction, but a group of guys drifting into disparate lives.
It makes sense for the Walkmen to fade out this way. This is a band that the music world never knew what to do with. It would never achieve the heights of fame of, say, fellow New York rockers the National. But the Walkmen were also too good to be ignored even if widespread recognition always seemed to just miss them. They landed a song on the soundtrack for Spider-Man 3 and people shrugged. Their signature tune, “The Rat,” off of their sophmore album Bows & Arrowsin 2004, made more than a few music critics’ “Best Of” lists that year. And then…nothing. More tours in a van, more albums (2006’s A Hundred Miles Off, 2008’s masterful You & Me), more slogging away like a thousand other indie bands that could never quite break through. Meantime there were marriages and families and moving to different cities, flying in to meet each other for recording and tours like a bunch of old friends gathering for a high school reunion.
In this way the musical evolution of the Walkmen almost perfectly mirrors the journey so many of us undergo between our immediate post-college years through to our late thirties. Like us, the Walkmen seemed to stumble through early adulthood searching for their identity, with full knowledge that that was what they were doing. You can hear this in the pre-formed nostalgia of their first album, 2002’s Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Goneand the romantic anxiety bleeding out of cuts like “Little House of Savages” and “My Old Man” on Bows + Arrows. Then came the unapologetic delayed adolescence of A Hundred Miles Off,a last kiss-off to carefree youth before the defiance of You & Me,when you can hear the beginnings of a realization that so many aimless wanderers come to eventually: it is time to go home. It just took the band two more albums to accept it.
So the Walkmen are no more, but the music, as always, is permanent. Here we present the extremely long Happy Nice Time People Walkmen playlist. It was tough to trim it down even this far – I could have happily put every song from You & Me on here – but this is a nice soundtrack anyway if you are feeling nostalgic for early adulthood, or still at an age where you need some tunes to carry you home drunk from a bar or a club after close, feeling pleasantly warm but still with that nagging question circling your brain: Is this all there is? Happily for them, though not for the rest of us, the Walkmen seem to have found the answer.
(Spotify and Rdio playlists below. Click your streaming service of choice and go to town.)