February 26, 2004

Shot Through the Heart

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For The Walkmen, bows and arrows best represents the instrument and ammunition of human expression. We’re constantly aiming our emotions and thoughts, launching our deepest, most personal sentiments into the air, and hoping they land on target, carrying all the power with which we released them. Each time our aim and mark are different, as are our means and message. No matter the trueness of our arrow or the integrity of our bow, sometimes we can never hit where we want. In this sense, our misses become just as important as our hits. With the title and thrust of their sophomore album, The Walkmen construe the agony of their all misses — the broken relationships, lost dreams, and personal failings — into a musical statement that hits its share of marks.

On Bows and Arrows, The Walkmen distill the essence of the reverberating, antique piano lines and seemingly haphazardly struck guitar that characterized their debut, Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone. With an eye for concision, the band focuses on reining in their dynamics — hitting the lowest low and alternately, the highest high. As a result, Bows and Arrows presents a tighter, explosive sound, with dirges full of gently paced pining and all-out rock assaults incited by overwhelming fury. While some fans might miss the sprawling echoes and relatively fast-pace of The Walkmen’s first release, they should be satisfied by the band’s newfound restraint. The band proves they can walk slowly and beautifully in addition to running at breakneck speeds.

“The Rat” presents The Walkmen’s first rock blitzkrieg. It begins with the mounting tension of the disharmony between the organ drone and violently-strummed guitar. This ambiance is severed by drumstick-destroying fills and Hamilton Leithauser’s belting vocals. The song is a torrent of frustrated pain set off by loneliness and the unhealed, raw wound of a dead relationship. By the end, we feel much like Hamilton, shut outside, “pounding on the door.” The song is a vivid and bitter narrative that asks you to relive the hurt all over again. Oddly, the appeal of the agony is so strong the track begs to be repeated. “Little House of Savages” and “Thinking Of a Dream I Had” reach similar levels of energy and anguish, rounding out the fist-throwing rock edge of Bows.

Along with the rockers, the album provides a striking number of quieter numbers that serve as a release from the aforementioned tracks, but maintain the intensity. “138th Street” clearly takes the pace down from a song like “The Rat,” but nonetheless delivers a similar message of regret. 138th, just above the location of The Walkmen’s studio on 133rd and Broadway, laments those people “figuring it out,” getting a house, a job, a wife, and losing their edge, things the band has probably thought about themselves. The idea of lost opportunity is the crux of the song captured in the forlorn and sparse guitar riffs, the unsettlingly soft drum-pounding, and Hamilton’s wavering, paced vocals. Similarly, “Hang on, Siobhan,” “New Year’s Eve,” and “Bows and Arrows” glide along, dwelling in the beauty of all that’s gone wrong and a glimmer of what might go right.

Bows and Arrows demonstrates how well The Walkmen have honed their group dynamic. Maybe it’s just that they’ve gotten more experience under the belt, or maybe they’ve tried to hit their mark so many times they finally found the means to do it.

Archived article by Andrew Gilman