Unlike many of their contemporaries who decided to burn out in a temporary burst of creativity or fade away in repetitive ignominy, the Walkmen have only continued to get better. It's a bit of a surprise when you consider the band predicated their success on a piss-and-vinegar brand of youthful fire and youthful anger, that New York City vigor and rage exemplified in "The Rat," the band's best known song off their 2004 breakthrough Bows + Arrows. It's the kind of spirit that's all too easy to dissipate as the years pass, and the Walkmen, truth be told, have been no exception. But as 2008's excellent You & Me proved, the Walkmen know how to age gracefully, transforming their earlier ragged edge into a stately procession of horns, spindly guitars and powerful drum work, all anchored by Hamilton Leithauser's cracked croon. It was still the same Walkmen, as the innovative instrumentation and Leithauser's gloomy lyrics made clear, but they had found a way to take their best qualities and shift them into a more expansive sound, the kind of sound that spoke of possibilities for the future. With Lisbon, the Walkmen have realized those possibilities, but in a decidedly strange way: for the first time in years, the Walkmen seem content.
Is that really Leithauser singing "I am a good man / by any count / and I see better things to come" as a jaunty guitar line rolls along and the drums bounce in a way that can only be described as triumphant? And when he follows that up with "could she be right / when she repeats / I am the lucky one," it's a shock to the system of any long-time Walkmen fan - Leithauser seemingly at ease with himself and his girl, and the music, so often ominous and threatening, now a pleasant, upbeat mix that calls to mind rolling country sides and mountain air, not the cramped and dirty alleyways of New York City. If it wasn't already obvious, first single "Stranded" makes it quite clear the new Walkmen of You & Me are here to stay. It's a classic rock ballad, one that boasts a sort of jazz processional feel to it and revels in the lush horn textures that the band has already mastered. Add Leithauser's distinctive, soulful wail, and you have what most of Lisbon ends up sounding like: a bona fide timeless classic, the sort of song that would sound just at home in 1970 as it does in the new millennium.
There's not much rocking out on this record, although when the band does put the foot to the gas, it's vibrant - check out the surf-rock thunder of "Angela Surf City," where drummer Matt Barrick's hard-hitting style shows the Walkmen aren't all that old quite yet. For the most part, Lisbon is a game of give and take: the muscular restraint in the tense "Blue As Your Blood;" the `50s slow-dance mimic "Torch Song;" how "Woe Is Me," besides being in the running for happiest Walkmen song ever, places its sunny pop exuberance perfectly between the more down-tempo "All My Great Designs" and the lovesick "Torch Song." If You & Me showed the Walkmen becoming more comfortable in the studio, Lisbon has them becoming veritable masters of it, from Paul Maroon's shimmery, layered guitar work to Barrick's propulsive style to those Walkmen trademarks, the upright piano and Leithauser himself, whose scratchy howl sounds just as confident and assured singing straightforward love songs as it does spewing venom. When the band wants to be quiet and ethereal, they do it better than most, as on the skeletal, back room intimacy of "While I Shovel The Snow," and when they want to celebrate, they do it righteously, from "Juveniles"' joyous tones to the colorful, cathartic chorus of "Victory."
There's nothing here that will jump out at you like "The Rat" did, and upon first listen Lisbon is a surprisingly tame journey, one that doesn't latch on to you with jagged teeth that refuse to let go like their more black-and-white records. No, it's the sound of a band that knows they don't have to draw blood to get a listener's attention. Instead they can offer up a song like the title track, which builds itself up and up only to slowly disassemble itself into a haze of crisp drum clatters and a nostalgic guitar line until the song ceases with no mess or fuss or, even better, no sense of unfinished business. It's the perfect way to end the record, displaying as it does all the best aspects of the Walkmen's new persona: the vintage production techniques (this is a band that desperately, desperately cares how every little thing comes out sounding); the disciplined yet organic way the band plays off each other; Leithauser's effortless creation of a unique vibe, a specific sound that the Walkmen can now definitely claim as their own and whose distinctiveness may be matched only by the National in the realm of contemporary indie rock. Lisbon is an album from a band finally using the full palette of their talents to adapt and come out the better for it, and that's a pretty picture to behold indeed.