Do You Have to Burn(out) to Shine?

08/20/2008 12:00 AM |

The Walkmen’s new album, You & Me, marks a sizable departure for a band that first made waves back in the early 2000s, when, along with the Strokes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, they helped New York City regain its status as a thriving place for raw, ragged, garagey indie rock.

Earning a reputation for a high-energy, vaguely punk-rock aesthetic, the Walkmen effortlessly juxtaposed — both on record and in a live setting — fuzzed-out, hard-driving songs with grand, atmospheric ballads that never seemed any less inspired or energized than the more traditionally rocking tracks. Beyond that, there was always the looming sense that the band was going to parties you only wished you’d been invited to, and as they sang songs about drinking heavily and living hard, it seemed the Walkmen were the kind of guys who’d decided they’d be in it for the long haul. And they still might be, but with You & Me, they’ve scaled things back a bit.

There are fewer upbeat tracks than on previous records, and while they’re still making records you want to get drunk to, they’re encouraging a different kind of drinking, a decidedly more mournful, late-night, melancholy type, rather than the kind you do with tons of people you may or may not even like. The record is hit or miss, with a smattering of songs that seem to carry on forever, and some that seem like filler. The energy is still there, but ironically, it’s being used to express sheer exhaustion — with being in a band, with themselves, with pretty much everything. They’re adamantly exhausted (which, come to think of it, is a phrase I’m definitely going to have either tattooed on my forearm or engraved on my tombstone), and they’re not the only band that feels that way.

In this space just two weeks ago, I wrote about the new record from Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst. It’s his first solo record, and it’s good, an album that I think will stand as some of his best work, full of simple arrangements and strong melodies. I said as much in my review, but I also got to thinking about the fact that, despite not even being 30 years old, Oberst has released eight proper full-lengths and has been touring consistently for just shy of a decade. And yet, on his new album, he shows no signs of maturing, or even wanting to mature, the way most people his age are expected to, which is to say, of course, by settling down and becoming sort of boring. In fact, he seems more comfortable than ever with the idea that he has no use for staying home or sobering up, or getting married and having kids. His new songs are even more about escaping all of that than the songs he wrote when he was 20, and to the extent that one might occasionally look for an artist to use as a mirror to reflect one’s own position in life, it can be somewhat disappointing when you realize you’re no longer heading down similar paths.

But at the same time, the opposite thing is happening constantly in indie-rock circles these days, with the Walkmen and a slew of others, where everyone seems all too willing to express exhaustion at a relatively early age. Look at all the press surrounding the last Death Cab For Cutie record — Ben Gibbard repeatedly talks, at length, about the growing disconnect between himself and his non-musician friends; he even wrote an article for Paste Magazine about his growing fondness for Jack Kerouac’s Big Sur, a late-career novel about getting older and leaving behind youthful adventures and ideals, a book he says has replaced On the Road as the one he most relates to.

Look too at the Hold Steady’s Craig Finn, a famously heavy drinker who’s said many times of late that his band’s new record, Stay Positive, is about getting older. He’s mentioned that he’s been drinking less on tour, and trying whenever he can to take advantage of hotel gyms. But for the most striking example, look at Beirut frontman Zach Condon, a 21-year-old who, after making two records, cancelled a European tour and, in a letter to his fans, said, “It’s come time to change some things, reinvent some others, and come back at some point with a fresh perspective and batch of songs.”

It’s difficult to pinpoint why exactly there’s this borderline fetishization of the aging or maturation process, but I suspect it’s one of two things.

The demographics of indie rock have been discussed endlessly in recent years, and criticized heavily for rarely including anyone other than middle- to upper-class, college-educated white males. The culture of indie rock being what it is, we’re dealing with people who were, for lack of a better term, book nerds when they were kids, and whose ideals were, in many ways, formed in direct opposition to rock and roll stereotypes, specifically in relation to the cartoonishly substance-abusing, barely literate monsters of 80s metal they grew up around. And so when they find themselves having achieved even a modicum of success, and they’re forced to figure out how to live the kind of lifestyle being in a band demands, they can only do it for so long before they have to retreat to more comfortable confines.

Another possibility, though, and one that I think is more likely, is that had these bands been around in the 1960s, 70s or, really, even just the 90s, they’d have responded differently. Look at the Superchunks of the world, or Built to Spill, Modest Mouse, or even They Might Be Giants — each of them made their initial splash long before the internet came around and made things all crazy for everyone. They’ve been making records and touring pretty much non-stop, all of them for well over a decade, and some for nearly two, with no real signs of slowing down. I’d suggest, though, that had they come around in say, 2005, they’d be far more worn down.

As the much talked-about hype cycle gets faster and faster, as bands (hello, Black Kids) are crowned Next Big Things and then mercilessly torn down by the internet community just a few months later, everything is becoming so accelerated that even the bands themselves are starting to get in on the game, reflexively, and it’s hard to blame them. Not that we need any clearer proof that things have gotten out of hand, but if the trend continues, with bands essentially shunning the typically fruitful and lengthy middle portion of their careers in favor of skipping to the end, it’s going to be the most upsetting part of everything that’s changed with the arrival of the digital age.