Guitars that conjure reverb echoing off of subway walls, equal parts ringing and hurtling, equal parts visceral insistence and quiet lament, with Bows and Arrows, The Walkmen manage to make the perfect city wandering music. At times Bows seems to be rising out a cavernous hole, sonically enveloping the listener with its soaring vocals and pandemonium of noise. While fellow New York rock n’ rollers the Strokes make tight, swaggering cheap beer drinking music, and the Liars descend into a difficult and disquieting madness, The Walkmen remain luminous and ragged. They capture the Velvet Underground better then those previously mentioned while carving out their own brand of post-punk with a dreamy, tinkling brilliance.
Bows and Arrows doesn’t sound like a major-label debut album (it’s on Warner Bros. imprint Record Collection). Nor does it sound like much of anything that would spring forth from a band with a tune in a Saturn commercial. This also isn’t the same band that was predicted as the saviors of rock n’ roll at one shining but destined-to-fail moment in the ‘90s. The Walkmen may be Jonathan Fire*eater plus and minus a few members, but they’ve managed to uniquely distance themselves while using their longtime friendship to their advantage (they grew up in Washington D.C. together). Even while they careen forward and in all directions their control as a collective is palpable.
The dichotomy of the fuzzed out guitars and the gorgeous ringing pianos mirror the vocals and lyrics’ tendency to be sneering and also charmingly mournful. It’s at once sparkling and romantic in “Hang on, Siobhan:” “So hang on/We’re coming home soon/It’s so hard to get through to you” and snarly in “The Rat:” “You’ve got a nerve to be asking a favor/You’ve got a nerve to be calling my number/We’ve been through this before/Can’t you hear me?/I’m beating on your wall.” There always seems to be just the right amount of desperation in Hamilton Leithauser’s delightful rasp. It’s also nice to have an album full of languid moments like “138th Street” and turn it up and wail ones like “Thinking of a Dream I Had.” In many ways they seem to be flexing their all-out rock abilities more on this album than they have before or since.
On Bows and Arrows, The Walkmen manage to paint a city full of late and lonely drunken nights, failing romance, and contemplative rides on parkways and subway lines. Somehow, in amongst all of the anger and lament, the music fails to feel or sound depressing. A little more of Walter Martin on the organ and one might almost call it transcendent. Almost.