I'm always confused about the degree to which The Walkmen are actually a New York band. There was all that talk a few years ago about certain members moving to Philadelphia, and you'd always read about how their time was split between the two cities. It's just a short trip down 95, of course, but it felt strange, because they'd spent the early stages of their career reaping the benefits of the early-aughts revitalization of the New York scene, when The Strokes, Interpol (oh god, Interpol) and The Yeah Yeah Yeahs put the city back on the map for the first time in what seemed like—and actually may have been—decades.
But the degree to which The Walkmen are actually a New York band has always been confusing for another reason: they never sounded anything like any of the locals they came up with. With three former members of Jonathan Fire*Eater in the band, elements of the then-popular garage rock sound could be picked out if you listened really closely, but it was far from their focus. They also never did distanced cool the way the rest of those bands did it, and it made them seem a little bit like outsiders. Now, six records and a full decade later, they still seem like outsiders. And they seem to like it that way.
With the release of Lisbon, they reverse a trend they hinted at on 2008's You & Me, an album that, now two years later, doesn't hold up quite as well as some of their other work. It was all a little too measured, a little too content to quietly stew rather than ever really lose its shit. It had its moments, but overall it felt like the worst kind of maturation, where the highs weren't as high, and the lows weren't as low, everything instead squished into a mind-numbing middle-ground. Its fatal flaw was that it too accurately reflected the malaise of adulthood, in that it was wholly powerless to combat it. It's not that the malaise is gone on Lisbon, it's just that you can hear them trying to do something about it again.
The Walkmen have always, sometimes frustratingly, alternated between upbeat rockers and slow, mournful dirges. The general consensus is that the slow stuff sets the scene brilliantly, but that the harder-edged stuff is the main attraction. This is an understandable way of looking at things, but for me, there's not necessarily a difference, and especially not on Lisbon: What the Walkmen do well is convey tension and desperation, generally, at least when they're really clicking on all cylinders, at the same time. And on Lisbon, more so than on any other Walkmen album, they do it as well on the quiet songs as they do on the loud ones.
The horn-laden "Stranded" is a perfect example of the band at its restrained best. It doesn't build so much as it plods along begrudgingly—the music itself seeming to mock singer Hamilton Leithauser, as he worries that he's wasting his life. By the end, though, he finds comfort, maybe even strength, in the plight he shares with the people around him: "What's the story with my old friends?/Drunk and lonely to the end/How I love 'em all." "Torch Song" is another one, with its breezy oohs and ahhs offering only brief respite from the intense navel gazing of the rest of the song. "Blue as Your Blood" swirls quietly but also violently—it sounds like pulling your hair out. Or wanting to, anyway.
As for the more upbeat stuff, "Angela Surf City" is the gold standard here, a song so propulsive and cathartic it's easily the best they've ever written. "Back to school, back to work/ Can this go on forever?/Angela, what's the difference?/Life goes on all around you," sings Leithauser, and it would be far more depressing, this apparent resignation, had he not just screamed his lungs out over soaring, ringing guitars and unhinged drumming, "Let's go home happy again/Just take your head from your hands." They know there's a doorway out of all this, at least temporarily, and they know they've found it. Their biggest achievement, though, is knowing that if they walk through it too many times, it eventually won't lead anywhere.