Islington Academy, London
25th August 2010
“You’re one of us, or you’re one of them“ — Hamilton Leithauser, fist wrapped tight around the microphone as if he’s trying to strangle it, is carving up those words. The rest of the Walkmen, heads bowed (as they remain throughout most of the set) act complicit and provide the carnival-esque roar to ram Leithauser’s words home. It’s not so much a question or a suggestion but a statement. For better or for worse, for way back when the band were selling their own white label records at the Middle East in Boston in 2001, I’ve been one of “us”.
The Walkmen are one of rock and roll’s most determined underdogs. Arriving at the same time as the great New York explosion of 2000, the members of The Walkmen chose to avoid the excess and hype that encumbered the late Jonathan Fire-eater (a band that several of The Walkmen appeared in) for less troubling waters. As The Strokes, The Rapture, Yeah Yeah Yeahs et al, climbed aboard their cruise ship for fame and moderate success, the modest vessel The Walkmen built themselves managed to chart the same waters but not chart the same charts.
Scheduled as a warm-up date for their appearance at the Reading and Leeds Festival, The Walkmen appear gamely ‘up for it’. With their sixth album Lisbon ready to drop in three weeks time, there are new songs and fresh optimism in the offing. The ticking clock rhythm and Leithauser’s “I would give you my heart/I would give you my love/but my heart’s been broken” on “Blue As Your Blood” show that the downbeat/downhearted feel that’s been plaguing The Walkmen the last few albums is still present on Lisbon. You crave to hear keyboardist Walter Martin play a jaunty riff and for the rest of the band to fall in as Leithauser grips the microphone like a bunch of flowers and proceeds to tell the assembled what a great day it’s been.
There’s still the optimism present in You & Me’s “In The New Year” and the vigour in the stupor-wakening new track “Angela Surf City” that give indication that The Walkmen may still be underdogs, but they haven’t fully become the weary “woe is me” kinda band. But oh, quelle surprise as Leithauser introduces another new song (sans irony) entitled “Woe Is Me” which from the start of Paul Maroon’s clanging guitar riff never has a chance to descend into self-pity.
It’s old friends like “Wake Up” and “We’ve Been Had” from Everybody Who Pretended To Like Me Is Gone and the manic frenzy of the near-smash “The Rat” which make the transition into Lisbon material less of an unfamiliar encumbrance, and an encumbrance it surely is not. If there’s anything to be certain from this next chapter in the book of The Walkmen, is that the distinction between which side you’re on is finally starting to pay off.