Bows and Arrows
ax as I am to perpetrate a discussion on the ramifications geo-dislocation has on my pop-music listening habits, I must preface this review with a short anecdote—an anecdote bursting with themes of holiday mirth, reactionary spite, and bi-coastal rivalry. It was late December, 2002, and I was feeling, for whatever reason, alternately satiated with the knowledge that gifts would be brought forth in the coming days, and, as in any Christmas fable centering on one’s gradual coming to grips with holiday-related misanthropy, hateful towards the throngs of shoppers, apple-cheeked babies, and several children running around like rats. I strolled alone down the cheerily-decorated promenade, clicking with my right hand the silver buttons of my doomed MiniDisc Walkman. Pre-iPod, I was forced to predict forty or so songs that would match the predilections I would no doubt face throughout my day. This proved to be no easy task as should I have put something saccharine sweet on the tracklist—say, The Flaming Lips’ "Do You Realize??" —I would no doubt be privy to some revolting social behavior that would make me feel awful and introverted all over again.
Therefore, feeling that a guise of doom-y elitism is one that can be easily adapted to nearly any situation, I front-loaded the MiniDisc with smatterings of Big Black and Kevin Drumm. I trudged past the welcoming facade of Barnes and Noble, superimposing the strangled murder-cries of Albini’s "Fish Fry" to a wretched looking couple wearing matching scarves and holding hands. I imagined not gloves in gloves, but wrists on throats, grabbing, choking. After the truncated Songs About Fucking clicked off and the nihilistic howls of Drumm’s "Inferno" coiled around me, I came to—yes, a minor epiphany of sorts. Who was I to deny these people their knick-knacks and middle-class dining ventures at "Chili’s"? A huge, beautiful Christmas tree loomed over me, and my ennui was thusly dissipated by nearly two decades worth of artificial sentiment attached to the holiday.
In a fervor to not be seen as the maladroit I was (Not that they could have known; the headphones were big), I skipped several songs, finally choosing upon a mood of wistful resignation; The Walkmen, yes, the group whose new record, Bows and Arrows I will be reviewing momentarily, began the tentative rumbles of "They’re Winning." WASP-y Walkman Hamilton Leithauser warbled passionately, the music swelled. Drum snares hissed like snow lightly hitting the ground; glacial pianos tinkled like icicles dripping from cabin eaves. My So-Cal-led cynicism melted away, revealing Gotham earnestness and romanticism. It was Christmas, and I was redeemed.
And so, for these reasons, I have attached to the Walkmen two pretenses which have allowed me to enjoy their music only in the midst of Winter. The first is circumstantial; standing out there in the "cool," I couldn’t help but be moved by the tactility of their sound. It was something warm—warmer than me, anyway—and I clung to it. The second is locational, and has everything to do with The Walkmen sounding very much the product of upper-class New York City living, but even I’m bored with talking about that. If you’ve read this far, or if you’ve just joined us, here’s all you need to know: Bows and Arrows is an album of grandiose pleasures, the sound of a band not just making good on the promise of their debut, but expanding every which way at once, merging distinctive songcraft with decadent theatrics, and tethering themselves to a confidence that they, unlike others, will survive the sea-change of a deflating scene.
Having divorced themselves from the relative sparseness of their debut, Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me is Gone, Bows and Arrows finds The Walkmen at a critical juncture; that is, how exactly does one record an album that retains the intrinsic "thingness" of its precursor, while maturing/advancing/evolving? The Walkmen’s first album was a hand-patched artifact of warmly analogue sounds and Leithauser’s tormented vocals. Bows and Arrows eschews the distinctly unfettered production of EWPTLMIG (recorded in The Walkmen’s own Marcata Recording) in favor of swirling walls of guitars and piano, and pounded drums. Most distinctively, Leithauser’s warble is obscured through rich swaths of feedback, only occasionally finding its way through the instrumental haze. The record’s impressionistic feel is both porous and bewitching, the sound of a band playing under glass. It is the hyper-real.
The band’s expansion of sound permeates the entire album, though nowhere so clearly as on "The Rat." The record’s "clearest" song, in a sense connoting "discernability" "The Rat"’s crystalline organ stabs nestle themselves along Leithauser’s vocal histrionics: "You’ve got a nerve to be calling my number! You’ve got a nerve to be asking for favors!" he howls, as a blizzard of chilly guitars buzz violently around the melody. I should note, at this time, that I’m not just making all the allusions to Winter archly, in some feeble grasp for literary cohesion. What I meant to convey in my long preface, and what I guess I’ll do now, succinctly, is that this album is clearly a seasonal one. It’s most overt in the song titles—"New Year’s Eve," "The North Pole," "No Christmas While I’m Talking," and others—but also evident in the glacial production; "Bows and Arrows" even features some fine sleigh bell playing.
No doubt this all sounds very appealing to Walkmen fans by now, and you are, as I am, ready for this review to end. But I can’t just stop there; though the record’s charms are obvious and immensely appealing, Bows and Arrows suffers from some terribly rote song sequencing, in which the most passionate songs are followed by dirges ("138th Street," "My Old Man," "Hang On Siobahn"). Now I’m all for dirges, and The Walkmen play them well, but there’s a reason dirges are heard at funerals—they’re hymnals for the dead, aural representations of the unliving. They kill, as they are supposed to, the mood, and they do so here; but this is a minor complaint. I’ll confess, I rather enjoyed the sensation of recovery I felt on behalf of The Walkmen, when the elegant drone of "Thinking of a Dream" melted away "New Year’s Eve"’s faint Victrola melody. Another complaint could be found in the record’s "sameness", but I’ll defer that, as I often do, to the fact that many records seemed to be conceived as a unified piece.
For everything I’ve just written about them, no Village Voice review or press hype could ever earn The Walkmen the fame they deserve. They’re rooted, musically, too far outside the New York scene (though they’re inevitably, unfairly lumped in with the rest of them when one speaks of touch-points for their sound), their aesthetic, though sweet, too uncompromising and raw. But for those of us that know and understand, Bows and Arrows is a dreamy follow-through, and should prove to entrench the band in our collective consciousness for at least another record. As Leithauser sings in a fleeting moment of lucidity, "We’re singing a song/We don’t care if we’re wrong/Have a drink on each other/Call it a day."
Reviewed by: Eric Seguy
Reviewed on: 2004-02-03