Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Album Review: The Walkmen "Lisbon"

One of the rules of writing that I’ve mentioned on this blog is that you should never begin with a quote, whether its dialogue or a quote of someone else’s. One of thhe other rules of writing is that you should never repeat yourself.  Obviously there are only approximately eight themes that we can write about: love, birth, death, passion, friendship, good, evil and youth.  With those eight (questionable) items you will inevitably come to similar thematic crossroads. The key is that each time you come to the crossroad  you approach it from a different route.  Your destination, the overall shape of the theme or virtue remains the same, but it is the the way those themes and virtues are discerned and relayed that should be different each time so that nothing is repeated.  Our days should remain this way as well despite our routines and subway routes.

So, I have written about the Walkmen before and related their music to love, passion, death, birth and youth.  I have written about Bob Dylan and life in the city and the country and spoken about love, passion, birth, death and youth. I’m not going to avoid repetition by tackling good and evil (I’m not that excellent of a writer yet), but the Walkmen will be approached from a different route than I have approached them before. This is because Lisbon is a different album than the Walkmen have ever made before. They approach the same themes and tones of their musical palette repeatedly but manage to expand the scope of their statement each time they do so.  The main thing is that “Torch Song” on Lisbon is a fantastic song and makes your mind move in all the right directions.

This past weekend I took Friday off from work to take a long weekend upstate.  The summer is hot and my job is good.  I work with all kinds of women all day and am easily swayed by passion so each day I am constantly exhaused by promise.  Living in the country has always been part of my dream, like Levin as Tolstoy’s alter-ego surveying the fields surrounding his family’s estate, watching the sun change color, water dry in the reeds and marshes and purple mountain flowers sway with the breeze and insects all the while tractor wheels or ancient scythes flash in the light below the lime groves.  So, when I can leave to go to rural places I do – mostly on the hope that I might learn to enjoy something concrete about life by paying attention to the change in demeanor from the city to the country or from the feel of dirt and the difference of air. Yet, usually, I just drink beer try to get dirty.

I left work and met my friend at the apartment she was staying in on the Upper West Side.  The friend she was staying with decorates for weddings in the city and around it.  Her apartment was littered with old bottles for flowers, pieces of wood, pinwheels made of color patterns.  There was a window next to the crates of bottles that opened out to a courtyard where small stairwells descended to the center and plants and flowers sat in the evening light.  The girl apologized about how messy the apartment was and explained that she had been very busy.  I told her that I liked a place with clutter, all the bottles looked neat and cool stacked in crates near the window, it made the apartment warmer in sme way.  She laughed at that and told my friend and I that the wedding would be near our destination upstate and that we could both stop by on our way home on Sunday. My friend and I agreed that would be nice.

Then, with coffees in hand we were in the car on the way towards the Taconic.  My friend was telling me about some new people she had met that were designing different clothes among other objects and materials.  She was making contacts in the industry she wanted.  That was where we were heading – the home of the designer she worked for.  The sun was setting and yet that coolness of August away from the city wasn’t setting in as the sky turned from orange purple to the periwinkle of the gloaming.  I thought of all the people I tried to contact and of other friends I knew who contacted other people and tried to make a start in some kind of creative business.  I thought about how much talent I had, but that thought was broken by the memory of my friends and I trying to sneak on a ferry boat from New London out to Orient Point.  I thought about the heat of the day and the look on the ferry hand’s face as we drove onboard without a ticket and he pointed us away with his brown, worn finger.

We arrived at a humble Mexican restaurant in an upstate strip mall and walked in to greet my friend’s designer boss and his wife.  They treated us to margaritas and a mexican dinner.  It was a Thursday and as the Designer Boss said, “We come here every Thursday.” The wait staff all knew the Designer Boss and his wife and they brought over several dishes that we ate down greedily.  Finally the meal was over and I motioned to pay for the check, but the Designer Boss wouldn’t hear of it and paid for the check happily. As we walked out, I thanked him and looked at a tiled waterfall in the lobby of the restaurant.  Outside, my friend and I asked if we could buy any wine or liquor.  The Designer Boss’s wife said, “You couldn’t drink us dry if you wanted to.  Besides, there’s no where to get it at this time of night.”  And as I looked around at the darkened strip mall and then the hills that rose above its sad roofs, I realized she was right.  So, we got in the car and my friend tried to keep up with her Designer Boss who was speeding around the country roads and hills he knew so well.  He beat us to his home and the motion detector spread out over the gravel drive.  There were planters with purple flowers and a built up hill the stood over the driveway and led to forest.  Next to the home, a sunroom stretched over and back and my eye was drawn to a garden and dark barn.  The light gave to the darkness and I saw the vague silhouette of a straw owl. Out in the night, I felt a great sense of distance, which I have felt at various points in my life, it felt as if some great vastness of the world sat in front of me althought it was completely unseen.

“You’ll see the view tomorrow,” the Designer Boss said.

“I’m sure I will,” I responded.

He led us into his home and we set down our bags.  He showed us proudly around this home that he had built.  He complained about dried caterpilars on the floor.  He showed us exposed beams of wood that stood underneath skylights and above the loft of the second floor.  He showed us the guest room we would be staying in – the B suite, because the A suite was being occupied by his neighbor whose floors were being redone.  He showed me his library because I confessed to working for a magazine and being interested in writing. I spotted a pool out by a light in the side backyard.

“You’ll go swimming in there tomorrow,” the Designer Boss said.

I laughed. “I imagine so. It’s going to be hot I heard.”

“Beautiful weather.”

Then he led my friend and I into his kitchen and offered us tequila, which I accepted.  My friend asked for whiskey, which the Designer Boss dismissed but poured anyway, like a doting father to a daughter, which in many ways he postured himself as.  We had our drinks in hand and then the Designer Boss said he was going to have a cigar.  He asked me if I would too, but only if I didn’t puke.  I said I would too and that I wouldn’t puke.  So we both smoked cigars out in the sunroom with a fan on above us and the humidity slowly giving way to the coolness that enters a summer night in August usually around midnight, though perhaps sooner if you are further in the woods or somewhere more northern.

“I smoked a lot of cigars in the summer of 2005,” I told the Designer Boss.

“These are good cigars he said.”

My friend asked him about his son, Max, who was in New York from Africa.  They would be seing him after he went to his friend’s wedding. Perhaps he would be staying longer.  He had a crush on my friend.

“You should watch out little girl,” he said to her. “Max likes you.”

We all laughed and the Designer Boss and I puffed on cigars and I thought about how much he would have enjoyed that. “I would that it were true.”  Then, I asked the Designer Boss’ wife about where they had lived in New York and they told us about Brooklyn in the 70’s and buying in Manhattan at the turn of the 80’s on the Upper West Side.  They told us about celebrities and neighbors who masturbated in the window.  The cigars turned in our fingers and the smoke puffed out as the red craters slowly drew towards the band by the butt. Then, the Designer Boss said he would retire with his wife and they did.  My friend and I stayed up and drank another glass each of whisky in his library with the TV on mute.  I admired a book of beatnik interviews and we talked about our separate love lifes and stumbled into slight disagreements as friends will do when they are comfortable and tired and finishing their last drinks.  Then we went up to bed, where I insisted on sleeping on the floor with a white duvet wrapped around me and pillows strewn about, claiming it was good for my back.

“I knew you’d do this,” my friend said.

Then we both slept.  She woke in the morning with the remaining coolness, which Hemingway said was the best time to write. She left the room and I spread out on the bed. I woke to an empty house, I supposed they went to get breakfast.  So I washed my face and slicked my hair back, brushed my teeth and put on clean clothes.  Then I went downstairs and into the sunroom feeling very neat with my notebook and novel hooked under my arm and then stacked on the wicker white table.  I started writing as I looked out to the view of the slight mountains and hills that spread in the distance.  The house sat above a golden hill of rye.  I looked around and thought of the Designer Boss and his family and of other small lives that were lived in these hills and began to feel melancholy. So I started to write.  It wasn’t long when the car pulled back down and my friend shouted out to me from the kitchen. They had eggs and bacon and all things for breakfast, but first we would walk.

We walked and the Designer Boss led the way.  We walked along roads that were lined with corn fields, corn to feed cows.  My friend ate some corn and mooed.  We encountered actual cows and the Designer Boss’ wife and I let them suck our fingers as we pet their heads.  We looked at barns and climbed long, slow sloping hills.  I stepped on rocks to pick unripe apples that had the perfect sourness for my enjoyment. I walked along and thought of Levin and Tolstoy and Bob Dylan in 1970 surveying their respective properties.  I had a notion of happiness and I believed that it was tied to the ability to perhaps know something greater about life in general by simply taking the time to observe it.  I reminded myself not to get to close to being like a hippy.

We returned to the house feeling healthy, warm and sweaty.  The Designer Boss cooked bacon and made over hard eggs.  We ate the eggs and bacon out on the sun room. The Designer Boss ate a bagel and pickled herring from Zabar’s.  I spread their homemade strawberry and blueberry jams out on my bagel.

“Which do you like better?” the Designer Boss’ wife asked.

“Blueberry is better.” The Designer Boss said.

“I like blueberry best,” I said.

We lingered over breakfast and made jokes. I thanked the Designer Boss and his wife several times and then asked him about hiking a hill to the fire tower.  The Designer Boss got very excited and told us that he would take us there to hike while he cut some of the rye that his neighbor had missed cutting with his tractor. Then, when we were done, we could swim in the pool with him before he went golfing at 4:00.  We agreed it was a perfect plan and were soon speeding behind him through the small town to the small mountain.  We got to the mountain and he pointed out the way.  We thanked him and climbed. I forced my friend to move faster than she wanted to as we climbed to the top and found the fire tower.  As we climbed the fire tower we paused momentarily to take in the views from the various elevations until we reached the top and watched the turkey vultures and red tailed hawks circle the tops of the trees.  We read out graffiti and then looked out at the clouds that formed shadows on the hills.

“Do you like my boss?” my friend asked me.

“I do. He likes you very much.”

“You think?”

“You remind him of something.”


“I don’t know,” I said. “I’m not sure he knows either, but its something that he can understand and it is something good.”

We were quiet after that and then made a joke about some acquaintance we both knew and decided to climb back, get back, swim and then leave.

We completed our task of swimming with the Designer Boss in his 85 degree pool (“It has to be 85 degrees”) and set off to meet our friends further upstate.  The Designer Boss was visibly sad as he helped us figure out the route to take to meet our friends.  However, he piled us on with homemade jams, zucchini bread and pesto.  As we left, the Designer Boss’ wife showed me some catnip that grew by the driveway.  We held it out to their cat, which the son had brought from Africa and watched as he curled his lip and pawed at the flower before curling up with it on the gravel.  Then I thanked her and the Designer Boss for everything and hoped I would see them soon.

“See you on Tuesday,” the Designer Boss said to my friend.

Then, we were driving up 202 N where we met our friends at my friend’s grandfather’s house.  His grandfather was an old Frenchman who did various odd jobs throughout his life but who retreated to this remote spot in the late 1970’s.  He spoke in a thick but clean French accent and seemed to wink every time he said something.  I felt something familiar when talking to him. It could have been the warmth of accumulated human experience that most grandfather’s have, or it could have been that I shared some trait of simplicity of the world with this man – the same peasant heart.  Maybe we were both just men.  I couldn’t decide.  But my friend and his wife were happy to see us and there were other friends there as well, so we cooked fresh corn and drank cold beer and cooked our dinner over a fire on an old cauldron while country music played.

The night fell in and it grew colder than it had been the night before.  We kept drinking and slowly but surely people had crawled off to bed in various spots, except myself, my friend, the grandchild of the grandfather, and his friend, the Photographer.  Since it was late and we were drunk we decided to wander without purpose in the fields and forest around the house. My friend, the grandchild of the grandfather, had directions of the properties printed in his head from memory and nostalgia so we followed him.  A new barn was being built and its fresh wood seemed to glow in the night, so we climbed in one of the windows and surveyed the craftsmanship, using our cell phone light to guide us.  When that was done, my friend wanted to walk on the path that led from the neighbors’ house to his grandfather’s rabbit hutch.  He had taken the neighbor’s daughter there one time.  We walked quietly through the yard, but couldn’t find the path.  My friend got caught in the prickers and we decided to finally give up. So the three of us boys took the road back and admired the full scope of stars that had stretched up above us.  Yet, we had to make a stop at the other neighbor’s home, the Architect.  We walked up his drive and into his yard since he wasn’t home.  He had a treated pond in the backyard and we drank beers along its zen edge.  Bullfrogs honked in the darkness and before I knew it, we were asleep out there.  We all awoke minutes later and retreated to our own beds – my friend into bed with his wife.

The next morning we cooked breakfast over the fire – eggs and bacon – and then took a trip to a waterfall landing to swim in the cold water.  I drank beers on the ride over the hills to the falls and then alongside the falls.  The boys swam to the falls and talked, watching a gay couple and their dog play with a big stick among the rocks of the fall bed.  Soon, it was time to leave there, so we drove back, picking up some supplies for steak dinner.  We played lawn games in the high heat of the late afternoon and cooked different courses of mushroom, turkey burgers and other vegetables over the fire before it was time to cook steak.  We ate thick steaks as the night grew dark and we poured chimichurri on the meat alongside beat salad and other greens. Then, there was a champagne toast, for my friend, the grandchild of the grandfather and his wife had been married only recently.  We all admired their connection and union and returned to our cups and cans.  The fire roared on and some of us fell asleep as my friend, the grandchild of the grandfather, relayed wild stories from his youth.  I dozed in and out, sipping cheap corn whiskey and making smores.  Finally the exhaustion set in.

“I was drinking for all of us,” my friend said.

“I was tired,” I said.

“No roaming tonight.”

“Maybe just some nights.”

We all retired to our beds.

The next morning we made another big breakfast. I felt rested and ate my eggs and bacon as well as homemade english muffins that my friends wife had prepared.  She cooked them over the fire.  I drank beers because the morning was hot. The conversation lingered and we discussed leaving.  Before we did, we took artsy photos in the woods with props at different locations.

“My parents definitely have these pictures. I’ve seen them,” one of the guests said and we all laughed at that.

Then, it was time to leave.  So my friend (the girl) and I set off in her car back to New York.  We drove smoothly back to the city and when we got to New York, the streets were clear, because it was a summer Sunday.  A  phrase that that day sounded so simple, old and beautiful to me.  The heat wasn’t terrible and there was no one on the road or on the streets and for a second, this great city seemed manageable.  I felt that I could smell salt water.

My friend dropped me off and I was dirty, tired, and exhausted from drinking beer and being in the sun.  So, I shaved, showered, made dinner and  bought cold Miller High Life bottles to drink in the evening.  I drank them next to the fan in my apartment and thought of going back to work on Monday.

This is supposed to be about  the Walkmen album Lisbon.  I’m not going to pretend to know what this fantastic new album is about.  All I am going to tell you is that it is the best album that the Walkmen have ever put out.  Wheras You & Me was all about a kind of wild passion for youth and catharsis – the pain of understanding that time is passing and that things are not as they once were, that what was may not ever be again, because your sisters are now all married – Lisbon is about what happens after that moment or era in your life.

The Walkmen started off as a loud band that had strange echoing guitars, organs and pianos (not to mention a fantastic drummer).  We fell in love with the anthem “The Rat” and moody numbers like “We’ve Been Had,” “Wake Up,” or solemn songs like “New Year’s Eve.”  Or, like me, you fell in love with the unbridled rock n’ roll of A Hundred Miles Off that made a person (especially a tortured soul) find meaning in the world.  There was something uncontrollable about their ability to go from cool and solemn to unrestrained and wild that fit someone who was making their way through their college years.  Then, when You & Me came out in my early twenties when I was learning to love New York and leave the romances and memories of my youth behind me and embrace the new strangeness and perhaps changes I would have to face in the coming years, it all made sense.  There was something poignant about that album. It was intoxicating enough with its use of horns, its ballads and its anthemic rockers that you just had to fall in love with it – there was no way not to because it represented something so strongly to life, to some kind of impalpable feeling or era that all people share.

Lisbon then one-ups that. Lisbon is the sound of a band that is completely comfortable in their skin.  Lisbon is the Walkmen. In many ways it is a superior summation of a band than Wilco (The Album) was for Wilco in its own clever way.  Lisbon has the rockers, it has the pop songs, it has the wailing anthems and it has the moody atmospheric pieces.  Yet, they never reach an extreme, they all feel natural, as though they are not one different song. Where sometimes that effect can make an album seem long or drawn out, here it never is.  The Walkmen understand the dynamics of their sound so well that they can subtly adjust from track to track without it seeming completely different, but when you pay attention you realize how different it is and you are never bored – there is always a vocal wail or hook or a tinkling piano, or a substantial throb of bass or some clever percussion that makes your head spin.  You’ve heard these songs before, but they have never been this good, they have never been this natural and you will never be able to get them out of their head. There isn’t much of a difference between “Victory,” “Angela Surf City,” “Torch Song,” “Blue as Your Blood,” and “Lisbon.”  The only difference is the subtle shift in dynamics. “Lisbon” itself is a tour de force in tone and atmosphere and is perhaps one of the best songs of the last ten years and it isn’t even the best song on the album, which would be “Torch Song.”

We often feel sad when athletes pass their prime or when musicians become older and start forming families.  The Walkmen have been around for about a decade.  They are starting to get their just due as one of the best rock bands around.  And I find it funny after the Strokes just played a legendary show at Lollapalooza to be talking about bands reaching maturity.  Lisbon, to me, is the sound of maturity.  It is concise at 11 tracks and each song, no matter what it is actually saying, says something about moving on with your life and finding a peace within your skin.  It is an album where you identify what your problem is, accept it and figure out the ways how to fix it.  The romance is over and so are the triumphant horns, now something else has inserted itself into your life, perhaps something that isn’t completely palpable, but something that feels comfortable and you can’t shake, because more than the romance it is this essence that you have always wanted – whatever it may be.

You can connect the dots for what this means about  a married couple, an old Frenchman in Upstate New York, a Designer Boss, two friends travelling, fires and drinking a beer in the coolness of the night.  I’m not sure what all those objects mean in the general context of the world other than that they exist and enter into my life from time to time as I try to make my way through time and learn to trust the things that I really want and not the things that the world suggests make me comfortable. Lisbon is that point, that city you reach when you find the balance of “what I want and what the world expects of me.”  That balance that can be explained by a Summer Sunday in New York City in a car, or by walking by a campfire with a cool beer and seeing a pool of water.  Those are the objects that may be there, that may reside in that city, but its all about how you get there and when you do, the music is sweet, it is challenging and it is good.


  1. Thank you for sharing your story. I like reviews that have a more impressionistic feel, that try to evoke meaning from experiences and relate them back to music. I read this with 'Lisbon' playing in my ears and a slight hangover in my head; it worked perfectly. Keep writing.

  2. Thanks for the kind words Aidan. I try to get at that impressionistic feel in all of my music reviews and also to an extent in my sports writing. Keep checking out the blog and feel free to let me know if you'd like to see any album reviewed or any kind of content up here.

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