Every time I hear the opening bars of “Angela’s Surf City,” the second cut off of The Walkmen’s latest album, Lisbon, I have to stop whatever I am doing and listen. Hard. It is that amazing.
The song is a minimalist masterpiece, from Matt Barrick’s stuttering drumbeat that almost stumbles over itself in its halting rush/stop/rush to get out of the gate and down the road, to its slashing, shimmering guitar washing over the rubble.
And topping it off is the heartache singing of Hamilton Leithauser. The song is so sparse it makes it hard to believe this is a five-piece band and not two guys banging it out on guitar and drums.
The other songs on their sixth album give glimpses of the rest of the band: a strutting bass here, some horns beamed in from planet Calexico (can’t say for sure about that literally, but metaphorically, yes. Most definitely). And thin-boned atmospherics hawking the ghosts of Dick Dale and smashing surfboards with a far-off Iberian Peninsula gypsy vibe chiming through the echo and reverb.
And they prove that “Angela’s Surf City” is no one-off fluke. “Blue as Your Blood” with its fuller band sound and “Stranded” with mariachi horns both put some meat on those minimalist bones.
They revert back and forth between the skeletal and the atmospheric throughout most of the album, though, so you have to be willing to listen. They make you earn your audible pleasures as they shift gears through “Victory”and “All My Great Designs” before accelerating into the one song that could even remotely be considered a bouncy pop ditty, “Woe is Me.”
But just in case you forgot what, and who, you were listening to, they crawl through “Torch Song” and the utterly beautiful “While I Shovel Snow” before culminating their journey with the title track “Lisbon.”
Any of these songs could have been done with more polish or pizzazz (or pop) but that would take away from the overall effect of having listened to an album of otherworldly songs while lolling on a beach in Ibiza. The Walkmen have achieved a miraculous study in mood and atmosphere by reducing each song to its basic elements.