(Record Collection Music, 2006)
In anticipation of The Walkmen’s 2012 album Heaven, I revisited their past three albums to prepare myself: 2006’s A Hundred Miles Off, 2008’s You & Me, and 2010’s Lisbon. I needed to catch up – I hadn’t really paid enough attention to the band after the superb, marvelous, stupendous, stone-cold classic Bows + Arrows (2004). I probably should have been more involved, but sometimes certain bands just don’t get you excited for every new release. There’s a reason for my shoulder shrugging, and whether or not it’s a good reason is a completely moot point at this juncture, but I’ve decided that The Walkmen had only themselves to blame for me not caring: they had the audacity to follow up that record with a record that paled in comparison when considering immediate impact.
I wasn’t the only one who felt let down. My reaction and the response to A Hundred Miles Off was that it wasn’t Bows + Arrows Part 2. And I think that I got it in my head that if Bows + Arrows Part 2 wasn’t on the horizon, what was the point of anticipation? Thus, my ill-informed malaise, and many years of Walkmen-less stumbling, grand gestures of “Meh” extended to each subsequent release.
It took me six years to make this right. Six years of missing out on some choice tunes, a number of which rival the best the band has recorded. See, it turns out I didn’t need something as cynical and selfish as Bows + Arrows Part 2, and I was a fool for not recognizing that. I could’ve – I should’ve – accepted A Hundred Miles Off for what it really was: an evolutionary step for a band growing, maturing, and experimenting within its strengths, and an overall fine listen. It wasn’t going to sound exactly like I expected, or even misguidingly wanted to – it was going to sound like what it was going to sound like, and that was that. Perhaps the band’s concurrent reworking and release of Harry Nilsson’s Pussy Cats should have clued me in, but hey, what are you gonna do.
From the laconic opening moments of “Louisiana,” it was clear that A Hundred Miles Off was already a more relaxing affair, and that vibe would continue (for the most part) – swaying drunkenly at times, at times reveling in immediate company, and even crashing through plate glass windows a moment or two – through future albums, marking a turn toward more mature responses to life’s idiosyncrasies. Because The Walkmen wouldn’t be The Walkmen without detailing the minutiae on which the balance of life hangs, noting the tiniest nudge one way or the other on the “good” and “bad” continuum. One moment they’re with a loved one “drinking our coffee under a canopy” (“Louisiana”), the next “I’ve got a temper and it’s lit / break all the windows in my car / burn down the room when I’m asleep / break out the bottles when I go” (“All Hands and the Cook”).
And even when things are going right, The Walkmen make you feel lonely, tapping into that pity gene we all need to exploit at one time or another, the one that makes you happy to be sad. A Hundred Miles Off most often reminds us that when we’re out gallivanting there’s always the drudgery of home awaiting you on the horizon. Even if you’re with someone, traveling to more exciting places than you’re used to, the specter of the moment ending looms depressingly close. Whether you’re in Louisiana, Boston, Tennessee, “the coast,” or, later, Lisbon, there’s always some dull nag that not everyhing’s right, and no amount of self-medicating can make it go away.
But don’t despair – The Walkmen know the answer lies in their particular form of sloshed blues and tropicalia, as seen only as it can be through the eyes of jaded New Yorkers. That just means they’re able to deliver, and no, there’s no “The Rat” or “Little House of Savages,” but that’s OK – there doesn’t have to be. The record doesn’t have to live up to any Bows + Arrows Part 2 nonsense, it just has to be itself. And fortunately, tracks like the aforementioned “Louisiana” (with trumpet!), the weird and shuffling “Emma, Get Me a Lemon,” the wonderful drunken stumbling of “Lost in Boston,” and the depressing late-night ruminations of “Another One Goes By” (maybe the album’s secret weapon) prime Hundred Miles for repeat listens. I have rectified my mistake of ignoring this record – it’s time you did the same.
RIYL: Jonathan Fire*Eater, The Wrens, The National, The Strokes