There’s an ease and confidence to Heaven, The Walkmen’s seventh and latest album, which can only be achieved when a band stops trying to break through and simply writes. They’ve long known that they can please everyone by tossing them around the room (“The Rat”), and explosive moments like that have been gradually decreasing on each of their albums (though they haven’t disappeared entirely, as “Angela Surf City” from 2010’s Lisbon attests). It takes remarkable self-assurance and restraint to effectively shackle a drummer as unique and unpredictable as Matt Barrick.
So while Heaven is deliberately stingy with the immediate thrills, that’s only because The Walkmen is chasing bigger fish now. As the back cover of the album reminds us, most of The Walkmen’s members are either fathers or prospective fathers, and they’re all married as well. What’s more, The Walkmen hears you crying “Dad-Rock” — and couldn’t care less.
In fact, Heaven is a triumph in the face of some considerable obstacles. Aside from the aforementioned dad-rock element, The Walkmen spends a decent portion of the album covering the ways in which being a touring band negatively affects the home life, which is well-worn ground indeed. Yet The Walkmen, particularly singer Hamilton Leithauser, should readily overcome their audience’s potential fatigue for these topics because they’re explored with such deep feeling. “We Can’t Be Beat” begins the album with Leithauser openly embracing a woman, and adulthood, fully aware of the attendant imperfections of both. The lovely doo-wop background vocals and a leisurely country and western shuffle that accompany Leithauser effectively complete the sentiment.
Before Heaven closes with the devastating “Dreamboat,” the relationship at the heart of “We Can’t Be Beat” will be glorified (“Heartbreaker”), tested (“Song For Leigh”) and deemed bogus (“Love You Love”) — but that’s only part of the story. If the album has a centerpiece, it would have to be the astonishing “Line By Line,” a beautifully simple song sung from the perspective of a father eager to reassure his child. Leithauser sings that “the wicked all will die” and “the honest man survives,” but when the child asks what makes him so sure of those comforting words, he’s unable to offer anything better than “I just know it.” It’s maybe the most sublime, affecting, and all-around masterful song in The Walkmen’s catalogue, which is no small praise.
Through it all, The Walkmen retains their usual charm: the guitars gleam and ring and play slightly out of step with the rest of the band; Leithauser alternately croons and bays while Barrick still manages to add more personality to his playing than any modern drummer I can think of. But the material is richer: the writing is as assured as ever, while chronicling the band’s lack of assurance in every other aspect of their lives. Heaven, unsurprisingly, offers an ironic twist on its namesake, but it’s evidence that The Walkmen are ever closer to achieving that sort of perfection in the professional realm.