At a Midwestern festival date two years ago, just before the release of the Walkmen’s latest album, Lisbon, a torrential thunderstorm broke out in the middle of the New York rockers’ set. Keyboard player Walter Martin made a go of it, trying to play with one hand while sheltering his expensive electronics with the other, but eventually the band had to take a brief break, bust out the tarps, and pull everything farther back under cover. If “Heaven,” the first song to emerge from the June 5 album of the same name, had existed then, the clouds might’ve parted immediately.
The Walkmen announced Heaven‘s completion by sharing a medley of sloppy U2 covers, so it’s not as if the title track’s messianic uplift comes without warning. In fact, one way to approach “Heaven” is as an extension of the golden-hued grace that attached itself to Lisbon, in contrast with the bitter unease of 2006’s uneven, folk-leaning A Hundred Miles Off or that same year’s art- and/or booze-wrecked Nilsson-Lennon full-album cover “Pussy Cats” Starring the Walkmen. Still, there’s a straightforward luminescence to this one that arguably hasn’t been present since the band’s perpetual monkey (actually rodent) on its back, “The Rat,” from 2004’s Bows + Arrows — although that masterful song had an evil glow, and this one instead evokes a long walk into the sunlight. In other words, it’ll be perfect for the Walkmen’s 2012 summer festival dates, including Lollapalooza.
That said, the Walkmen’s latest shift from subway-gritty to big-sky epic might not go much further than surface level. Sure, lead singer Hamilton Leithauser’s famous howl has softened into a vibrato-laden croon, and the thrumming, two-chord song is big and simple in a way that smacks more of Joshua Tree than the band’s old uptown New York City haunts. But as with Minneapolis-based online upstarts Elite Gymnastics’ recently CFCF-remixed “Here, in Heaven,” the Walkmen’s “Heaven” has a dark lining. The song appears to detail a crumbling relationship, with a lover, with music, or with who knows what: “Don’t leave me now / You’re my best friend … Remember, remember / All we fight for,” Leithauser booms, en route to a U2/Coldplay-sized whoa-oh-oh potential sing-along. And bear in mind, the version available now is only a “radio edit,” so there’s no knowing where this one goes after fading out in the end. The weather, too, remains unpredictable.