Sunday, December 13, 2009

#20. 'Now I go out alone, if I go out at all'

The Walkmen "The Rat"

I really wish I'd had the foresight to save my rant about bands who can't seem to understand exactly where their strengths lie until now. The Walkmen are such an obvious case of this that I wonder why I wasted that whole spiel back on "Wolf Like Me," but suffice it to say that there's a reason that you won't be seeing The Walkmen on the albums list. Essentially, like TVOTR they're at their best when they've got excessive amounts of energy coursing through them. Unlike TVOTR though, when that energy disappears they become almost insufferable to me. When Hamilton Leithauser's voice starts to slow to a drunken slur that's no more melodic or pleasing than my own drunken attempts at karaoke the band just dies an uncomfortable death, which is a shame since when they pull out all the stops and just fucking rock out for a few minutes they sound like the most vital and important band of the decade. It may have only happened a couple of times, but on "The Rat" at the very least, for four and a half minutes The Walkmen sounded like they could rule the world if they so chose.

'Energetic' doesn't do justice to the sort of fury that "The Rat" possesses. It's feral, ferocious, unflinchingly raw, rabid...I could thesaurus it up a bit more the bottom line is that it's the sound of a band firing on all cylinders and then some, summoning up reserves of energy that they'd rarely hinted at before and completely committing to the highest level of primal ferocity that they're capable of. Right from the start it's obvious that this was gonna be different from the previous Walkmen songs I'd heard. Guitarist Paul Maroon was thrashing his way through one glorious chord, Matt Barrick putting together a relentless beat to match that thrashing, organist Walter Martin crashing in after 20 seconds along with bassist Peter Baur and giving the song depth...even before Leithauser came in to signal just how much of a shift this would be the song was already doing enouh to make my ears perk up. In the context of Bows + Arrows it was a definite kick in the ass after the meandering "What's in It for Me?" but even on its own it's the kind of introduction that you just know is setting up for something completely amazing.

And then Leithauser starts up and it's obvious that you were right. I've been obsessively listening to music for about 6 years at this point, and I still have yet to find a vocal performance that tops this one in terms of sheer aggression and ferocity. The way he just cuts through the undeniable groove that the band have set up with that primal growl of 'You've got a nerve to be asking a favor!/You've got a nerve to be calling my number' is the vocal entrance to end all vocal entrances, with every aspect of it hinting at a deeper level of history at work here than the lyrics alone would give it. Essentially, Leithuaser sound like a drunken mess, slurring his words, drawing them out as much as possible and barely considering the technical aspects of his performance in favor of diving right in to the emotional ones. The lyrics themselves point to exasperation, but the performance makes it obvious that whoever it is that Leithauser is raging at is responsible for the state he's in, even before the chorus rears up with that even more impassioned 'Can't you hear me?/I'm BEATING ON YOUR DOOR!' I know that there are plenty of instances where a vocal performance is just as essential to the song's meaning as the words its singing, but few this decade are as effective at this integration as "The Rat", the way the performance anticipates some later lyrical developments but not enough to dull their impact when they finally arrive.

But nothing could anticipate the middle section, where the band strips back to little more than a more subdued variant of Maroon's chorus riff and Leithauser calms down enough to deliver a gutpunch of a lyric. It's not hte kind of thing I'd have expected to hear given the swirling aggression of the song itself, but what emerges is probably the most succinct summation of just how thoroughly wrecked Leithauser is at this point: 'When I used to go out I would know everyone that I saw/Now I go out alone, if I go out at all'. It's that couplet that sends the song from great to essential in my mind, as much as the main body of the song appeals to me, that sort of gear shift from raging fury to introspection could have sounded trite and hackneyed in other hands but it works here. Those two lines, and the subsequent return to the song's main riff thereafter, gives the song the sort of rational base that most other moments of pure aggression in music lack. It's a sad little observation of the obsessed, hermit-like state that Leithauser finds himself in but given how passionately he goes off on whomever's asking a favor both before and after it's meaning is more than just that; it's the most economical way of saying 'you fucked up life, and now you want something from me?'. It grounds the anger, rationalizes the outbursts and makes the song so much more potent than it would have been without it. It's no coincidence that when I'm listening to the song I get more into the last repetition of the main section than the two before that bridge, because now that the feelings seem more rational it's easier to get into the anger than before.

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