The Walkmen are kings of dejection. For about decade now, they've turned their albums into symphonies of disappointment and resentment and regret. Their proudest moments, then, are also their most down-and-out. Their best song, "The Rat", is a world-weary, old-before-its-time rager, a song from a young guy seeing that he's already falling out of step with the universe and feeling pissed about it. Their second-best song, "In the New Year", sounds triumphant and optimistic at first, but on further listens it reveals itself to be as much a plea as anything else, a secular prayer that shit just please start working out right. The specific brand of desperation that the band conjures is miles away from, say, the throbbing, dread-laced depression of fellow dapper New Yorkers the National. The Walkmen are more theatrical and unwound than that-- they're the guys out in the middle of the street, screaming up at the sky, begging to know why everything always falls apart.
In that elegantly disheveled mutter-wail thing of his, frontman Hamilton Leithauser starts new album Lisbon off by singing: "You're with someone else tomorrow night/ Doesn't matter to me/ 'Cause as the sun dies into the hill/ You got all I need." He's sad and pathetic and needy and yet somehow still smooth, which is sort of the central animating paradox at the heart of the Walkmen. They make these wounded, anxious songs, but they make them so confidently, with such unearthly rich-guy assurance. The band's specific style of indie rock is very rooted in a scrappy, scratchy New York tradition that dates back to the Velvet Underground or Bob Dylan, but their take on it is theirs and theirs alone. You know one of their songs right away when those winding, circular guitars and surging drums and gargling vocals kick in. They're so performative in their sadness, but that stuff never rankles or comes off tantrumy, since the band is just so good at this stuff. There's a song on Lisbon called "Woe Is Me", and it's not even remotely a joke. Great song, too.
This is a band that cares deeply about things like microphone placement, and so everything sounds just unbelievably crisp and warm-- except when it's not supposed to, as on the purposefully weird, strangulated two-minute panic attack "Follow the Leader". And even though they sound very much like themselves throughout, there are some great variations in here. "Stranded" uses beaten-down mariachi horns to massively graceful effect. "Victory" (which, naturally, is about never achieving victory) has the same sort of blood-pounding chorus that "The Rat" does. "Torch Song" is a song about a song, about not knowing the right song to "calm down all the madness," but the amber Twin Peaks Angelo Badalamenti fuzz on the track is just heart-stopping gorgeous. The Walkmen know what they're doing here.
In early interviews, Leithauser claimed that Lisbon got its sonic inspiration from ancestral Sun Records rockabilly. That influence never makes itself overtly known, but there are a few slick little old-school nods here and there, like the relentless Tennessee Three train-chug rhythm on "Blue as Your Blood", or the ahh-ahh backing vocals on "All My Great Designs". More than that, there's an economic speed and simplicity at work here; the songs might be reflective self-lacerating wallows, but they're fast wallows. Drummer Matt Barrick tends to play just off the beat, but he hits his drums just incredibly hard, with the sort of crisp wallop you feel in your teeth fillings. On the album's big, transcendent, loud moments, his crash cymbals sound like fists raining down on you from heaven, and he's still very much a force even on the quieter songs.
And that brings us to "Angela Surf City", the song on this album that deserves a place alongside "The Rat" and "In the New Year". It starts off tense and withdrawn, Leithauser singing about some relationship without ever letting us in on what, exactly, is going on. Underneath, there's a tense, withdrawn surf-rock beat. And when the chorus starts to well up, the music underneath keeps surging upward, becoming huger than anything the song should be able to handle, then getting even huger from there, as Barrick lets off relentless Bonham-level thundercracks. Leithauser sings guarded, terse stuff that I don't necessarily understand, but he wails it so hard that it comes out anthemic: "You took the high road! I couldn't find you!" The Walkmen play with restraint, and they don't usually allow themselves earth-shaking moments like that. But when those moments come, they're enough to send you spinning.
— Tom Breihan, September 13, 2010