The disbanding of the Walkmen in December 2013 caused little uproar. The event didn’t seem to warrant much in the way of long-form “in memoriam” articles or wistful discography-in-reviews; to most, the split was unsurprising. Solo albums from two members — lead singer Hamilton Leithauser and multi-instrumentalist Walter Martin — had already been announced. There were also the implications of the group’s history: They released seven albums in a little more than a decade, all purveying a near-trademark sound which they never complicated too much. While the formal pronouncement saddened longtime fans, it made sense that these gracefully aging, family-oriented gentlemen would want to move on from a project they’d been pursuing since college. As a band that emerged fully aligned with the yell-along, post-punk-pop trend in early ’00s indie rock, it actually seemed amazing that they had remained relevant and well-liked as long as they had.
The Walkmen’s LPs may run together a bit when played back-to-back, but over the course of their career they proved to be dogs capable of learning new tricks, though they didn’t draw too much attention to them. By the time of 2006′s Americana-leaning A Hundred Miles Off, the band had scaled back the overdriven guitar and organ fanfares of their first two albums. 2010′s Lisbon and their final release, Heaven — featured stripped-down arrangements and more modest songwriting reminiscent of early rock ‘n’ roll. Leithauser began to sit further back in the saddle lyrically, becoming interested in sketching characters, vistas and oblique self-reflections rather than eviscerating exes or detailing drunken gaps in judgment. He tested out a brighter, less self-defeating croon, with fewer asphyxiated gulps. The disarming simplicity of the band’s presentation overshadowed the records’ inevitable monotonous moments. Like the patchy, “Brandy Alexander”-addled ’70s Nilsson records the band celebrated with their full-length revisit of Pussy Cats, part of the chief appeal of Walkmen releases became the laidback spirit they exuded. It was an illusion (it’s been reported that there was often a tense or at least businesslike atmosphere in the studio), but an expertly executed one.
Black Hours, Leithauser’s debut solo album, makes it clear that the singer and guitarist is more responsible than one might expect for the bent of his former band’s songwriting (the second half of the album delivers largely superb non-Walkmen Walkmen songs — particularly “I Don’t Need Anyone” and “The Smallest Splinter”). But it also indulges playful, more decadent tendencies which might have been out of place on one of the band’s LPs.
The detailed arrangements lend grandiosity to the songs on Black Hours. Even the most conventional rock numbers are bolstered by meandering mallet lines, intricately-detailed backing vocal arrangements or kitschy handclap choruses. The integration of unpretentious string arrangements and ex-Walkmenite Paul Maroon’s honky-tonk rhythm piano makes comparisons to Nilsson and John Lennon’s solo albums apt and inevitable. “I Retired” even features a slow boogie-woogie groove similar to “Revolution,” and a doo-wop coda featuring Leithauser’s voice drenched in the type of slap-back echo to which both Lennon and Elvis were partial. At moments like these, a freewheeling energy and sense of humor arises which never rears its head on a Walkmen album.
Lyrically, however, Black Hours is never tongue-in-cheek. It’s largely a collection of despondent love songs; Leithauser’s narrators are either holding a candle or stomping on it. There are elements of vocal jazz on the album’s first two tracks (Indeed, Leithauser has cited Sinatra’s September of My Years and In the Wee Small Hours as particular inspirations). The strings-and-stride-piano-driven “5AM” opens the album like something off an early Scott Walker record — which were themselves only a few volumes of Symbolist poetry away from Frank at his saddest. The orchestral polka of “The Silent Orchestra” is dominated by Leithauser’s exhortation, “When you go dry in your heart, come and find me,” which works as a nice paraphrase of Townes van Zandt’s “Won’t you come and get me when/ you’re sure that you don’t need me then…” It is the album’s finest refrain.
Though the emotional charge of the songs is strong, they aren’t necessarily soul-baring; they feel simultaneously direct and guarded. Leithauser speaks either in the arch platitudes of a jazz standard (“Each day is like the other/ I sit alone and wonder/ What’s left to ask for”) or remains cagey, painting noir half-pictures in broad strokes (“Oh we walk along the dock and watch the buildings rise/ And all along we’re living in a shadow”) The intimacy is in his performance. His delivery salvages couplets that might otherwise feel awkward or nebulous (“Do you ever wonder why I sing these love songs/ When I have no love at all?”), drawing them out to highlight his surprisingly rich vibrato.
In the end, Black Hours is indie rock filtered through a tasteful layer of glitz. If the Walkmen were the Crickets, this album is more Buddy with the studio orchestra. More steeped in gentle irony than machismo, Black Hours creates a fitting context for a beloved lead singer striking out on his own. It helps cement the musical legacy of Leithauser and the band he rode in on, and hypothesizes a long, pleasant career ahead.